A Journey Fueled By Passion, From Devastation To Triumph
John McGrath’s story is worthy of a Hollywood film, or at least a great documentary. John worked his way up from being a chicken factory worker to winning a the gold medal for Ireland in the International Open Championship, and receiving a scholarship to study sport management and science. He went on to open 3 martial arts gyms, become a motivational speaker, and to coach Olympian Luvo Manyonga to a silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. But none of this came easy. He had to sacrifice a lot to become successful, but persevered, and to become an inspiration to many. Here’s how he did it, from the beginning…
to this interview by X: THC.
John, can you please tell us about your upbringing? What challenges did you face as a young man—and how were you able to get through them during that time?
I’m going to be completely real and delve into the darkest of moments. Growing up in Ireland in the late 70’s, going into the 80’s, was not the ideal time. Ireland was completely divided and torn politically and socially – it was like a civil war that tore through the whole society and culture. These were times of mass immigration, job scarcity and extreme poverty.
To put it lightly, it was harsh. There was no time for a young man to dream and consider what his future might be. There were no jobs available either, your best bet was getting a job at the local chicken factory.
We weren’t a wealthy family, basically we lived from day to day, hoping for the best. There was no possibility for studying further and getting a proper education, we never even knew what it was to go away on holiday. So it is safe to say that there was a serious limitation to what I could do or what I could achieve with my life.
I worked as a “bin man” from a young age – this was my first job. I choose this job for two reasons. Reason 1: It gave me a lot of free time to start working on my dream and reason 2: it was my only option at that time.
My ticket out of this personal dream-shattering hell was when I realized that I can accomplish something in life through sport. I realized that I had the strength to change my body, the way I thought and the way I was living.
Strength was something that I could change and improve. I had so much willpower, drive, room to grow, determination and the passion to get out – out of the “ghetto”. I wanted to do something special, something that would change me internally and externally.
How did you discover the sport of rowing during those tough times? How did you (or your family) pay for your training as a 13-year-old youth?
I discovered the rowing club by chance, you could say it was a case of “divine intervention”. There were free swimming classes at a pool in a town 30 miles from where I lived. I started going to these classes and I quite enjoyed them. While I was there some of my friends were part of the rowing club so I made the connection between swimming and rowing.
One day while swimming, a coach approached me and “recruited” me for the rowing club – the coaches used the swimming classes as a recruiting ploy and I knew about it so I gave my best every time. The incredible Dan Murray became my coach that day. He saw my potential and he believed in me which in turn made me believe in myself and realize my self-worth.
The rowing club was very supportive of their members and they held regular fundraising events to enable them to provide for the junior members who could not financially afford to be part of the club, even the junior members who could afford a membership did not have to pay – there was a belief that the juniors would be the future of the club. They held dances and had small membership fees which the other members paid.
As always, nothing in life is free. To be part of the club I did some hard labor in return for my membership. I worked in the bar, mowed the lawn, cleaned the toilets, picked up glasses and helped wherever I could. This also taught me work ethic and improved my strength. You can kind of call it an “energy exchange”. All I had to take care of in the end was my pocket money and transport.
“Nothing in life is free, everything comes with 100% of effort.” – Matias Ruiz
Later on, you had to work two jobs doing hard physical labor while your teammates studied in university. How did you balance your time and energy in order to train and stay competitive in your sport?
Those were the days that started with early mornings, 4 am to be exact. I was obsessed with the sport and, having a competitive nature and a lust for life, I typically gave it 110%. I realized that this was the vehicle through which I would change my life. I had to cycle 30 miles there and back to get to the rowing club which also helped me get fitter and stronger.
At work I would visualize my training and where it will bring me in the future, I was thinking positive thoughts which helped me get through the days. I kept thinking of ways to improve and what I could do to be better. It is quite ironic actually – while doing mundane work I was dreaming big.
Your fortunes changed when you were 23. After you were selected for the national rowing team and won the gold in the International Open Championship, you received a scholarship to study sport management and science. How did you feel when you were on top of the rowing world and finally able to plan a career in sport management?
I felt like I had the world in my hands. It was a great accomplishment and I felt honored. This was a vindication of my efforts and determination that just grew stronger every day. I have finally been rewarded for all the early mornings, long grueling days and late nights. Strength and sport was, and still is, my life and having the opportunity to study in that direction was a tremendous gift.
But then your fortunes changed again, right? During a race, you blew a disc in your back. How did you feel when the doctors told you your career as an athlete was over?
I could, without a doubt, say that that was the most devastating conversation that I have ever had. My rowing career was over so my life was over. I was done, defeated. This took me into a really dark place that I was afraid I was never going to get out of. It was hard for me to understand that my days of rowing were over and that it was time to accept defeat.
Back then I did not have the tools to deal with such let downs and those dark and negative emotions. I was lost… I was defined as John the rower; all I knew was rowing. Who was I now, was the big question. This big setback actually gave me a chance to follow a new direction, this I only realized later.
How did you find a way to overcome the doctors’ diagnosis and return to the sport you loved?
To be completely honest, I never really returned to rowing. I had to be completely rehabilitated before I could even think about competing again. I competed in a few of the smaller competitions but never again on an international level. The rehabilitation allowed my body to experience a different type of power and it strengthened me in other ways – this lead to the flexibility that I needed to get into martial arts.
After you discovered the rehabilitative power of the martial arts, you fell in love with the sport, right? Tell us how that happened.
Martial arts are, as it says in the name, a form of art. When you become part of it and fully immersed in the training, your body, mind and energies become one. The incredible strength and power that both the mind and especially the body has completely fascinated me.
This was my next “ride” in life, a new vehicle that will take me and my love for sport in a different direction. In the martial arts you learn extreme physical strength, technicality, dedication and respect for your body, and in a, way life as well.
“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The above quote is extremely true and powerful. My martial arts journey was a great one. It expanded me in many ways. My mind and body grew in strength and power. I continuously kept growing in what I do best.
Training with Bruce Lee’s coach and trainer, DoJuNim (founder of the art) Ji Han Gea, was a privilege. During that time, I learned unbelievable strength and power as well as the finer things and the beauty that life holds. I trained in the North Philippines, what an incredible place that is! Then I started competing for Ireland in Karate and Kickboxing.
How did you rise to an elite level of expertise in a new sport at age 39? How did you motivate yourself to compete—internationally, even–in this new field?
Representing and competing for Ireland in the European Kickboxing Championships in Macedonia was another definitive moment in my sporting career. Through sheer determination and passion, I made more of my dreams come true and this at the age of 39!
I once read that the first 40 years of your life is about building legitimacy and the last 40 years of your life is about building a legacy.
I wanted to prove to myself and society that no matter what age and what setbacks you have experienced; you can still compete. I poured my whole life into this journey and that is what I do throughout my entire life, the principles that apply in sports apply in life too. You are either all the way in or completely out. I was obsessed with this sport and the challenge that it holds.
You used that drive and never-say-die attitude of yours to succeed in another field—that of organizational coaching, right? How did that career transformation come about?
I opened 3 martial art gyms. In doing this I created an environment that I could thrive in. I put my passion and knowledge into something that can change other people’s lives too. It helped me physically, I gained new tactical skills as well as teaching them to others and at the end of the day I made myself a steady income. I started these gyms with the vision of training athletes up to international championship levels. Through this I was not only a conditional coach but found that I could become a motivational role model and speaker as well. Essentially I wanted to change people’s lives for the better.
“True leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders”. – J. Sakiya Sandifer
How do you use what you learned as an international competitor in two sports to help you motivate organizations and the individuals who work for them?
High performance is exactly what the word says regardless of which field you are in. The same characteristics that drive you externally should be driving you internally as well. No amount of external drive will help you succeed if you don’t believe in it internally.
“As far as methods go – there are 1000’s or more, as far as principles go – there are few. Those who grasp principles, can use the methods that they want and they will succeed.”
There is just too much information in the world. I feel that people should keep it simple and not complicate things. Clearly define your goals in these high pressure environments and you will succeed. Create an environment in which you can succeed and success will be inevitable.
Tell us about how your work as a mental toughness coach helped to transform an individual with an addiction to crystal meth into an Olympic medalist.
For a while I felt that something in my life was missing. I had a calling but couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was. Then I found Luvo Manyonga or he found me. Luvo was banned from competing in sports for two years due to a crystal meth addiction.
I never saw or branded Luvo as a crystal meth- or drug addict. I saw him as a troubled man struggling to overcome an obstacle in his life. Since the beginning I saw his potential as an athlete and a human being. I had empathy for him because of my own background and the obstacles that I had to overcome in my life, I understood him.
This time around, because of my past and being emotionally more mature, I had the right tools to help and support him. I was able to provide mental toughness to help him cope with the anxiety and kaleidoscope of emotions that he was experiencing. I had to build him up and put the initial scaffolding in place so that he can find the purpose of his life again. There are three things that I did to start this journey.
- I became his friend.
- Together we put structure into his life.
- I believed in him and his dream.
By doing and incorporating the above points into his life, the mental conditioning started to work. However, I never thought that I would get so much in return as well – I experienced a different type of joy, sense of achievement, a stronger type of love for a friend and respect on another level.
I believed that Luvo could be the best high jumper in South Africa and he started to believe it as well as believing in himself. I also felt the need for South Africa to have more strong men from other ethnic groups to become role models to the previously disadvantaged individuals.
It is important for me to be on the same level as my “family” of athletes. I need to speak their language, their “lingo”. A lot of people use terms and words that they learn while studying but this is not how you should be talking to every day individuals.
This is the way that I treat all my clients and athletes, not only Luvo. I love, respect and care for all the people that I work with and I try to get out of my comfort zone and become as much involved as possible in their lives and transformation. They have the wings; I need to teach them how to fly.
John helped Luvo win a silver medal in Rio, 2016. Becoming successful wasn’t a straight road for John, and when he lost his passion in life; rowing, he just found a new one. We think there is much to learn from John’s journey. Even when you’ve lost your passion in life, or your love in life, there is a way to keep going, to survive. You just take time to mourn, and move on, painful as that may be, because the loss actually strengthens you, and that is the meaning of “fall down seven times, rise up eight.”
Read more about John and contact him at his website, http://johnmcgrath.co/
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