‘By lifting others, you also lift yourself ’ - John McGrath’s remarkable journey
The Waterford man whose only limits are those of his imagination
John McGrath raises one of the local kids over his head in the Mbekweni township, close to Paarl city, the former home to World Champion long jumper Luvo Manyonga. Photograph: Barbara McCarthy
Ask John McGrath how far he’s come to speak at the GAA coaching conference in Croke Park on Saturday and you don’t get an answer: you get a philosophy – from a man whose experience is unique not only to sport but to life and all that comes with it.
“I’m just going to tell them my story,” McGrath tells me, and with good reason. The conference theme is “Think It, Do It, Become It” and McGrath has done plenty of that and more: hurler, rower, martial artist, circus strongman, strength and conditioning coach, motivational speaker and world record holder, the only limits being the limits of his imagination.
Along the way he’s never once touched alcohol and is now devoutly vegetarian, but has touched the lives of many – not least South Africa’s world champion long jumper Luvo Manyonga, who just five years ago was reckoned to be about “5 per cent away” from death, such was his addiction to crystal meth in the township of Mbekweni, close to the city of Paarl, about an hour outside Cape Town.
These days McGrath considers Paarl his home, where he runs a gym and works with a variety of South African sports, yet Saturday certainly represents a sort of homecoming. Growing up in Tallow in Waterford, hurling was his first sport, and it was chance– or rather opportunity, the central theme of his life – which brings him back again.
“I was last home in April, giving a talk with Dr Mark Rowe in Waterford, and Pat Daly [the GAA’s Head of Games] happened to be in attendance. He’s from Tallow, exact same neck of the woods, we spoke afterwards about the GAA’s conference, and thankfully it materialised.”
That GAA connection actually runs deeper: McGrath played hurling at school in St Anne’s, Cappoquin, was later strength and conditioning coach with Mount Sion when they won four Waterford titles, plus the Munster club, in the early 2000s.
“That was an epic journey in itself, the McGrath brothers Ken and Eoin, Tony Browne, Brian Flannery, Eoin Kelly, guys like that, and their style of hurling was I think synonymous with the way Waterford played at that time too, winning the Munster title in 2002, after so many years. It was a liberating style, and for me, even when they lost, it was the way they played, with absolute abandonment, such a joy to watch. And there’s an awful lot to be said for that, and to help equip them with the engine to play that style was a real privilege.”
Racing ahead a bit though, because before that McGrath had found his first real sport of call in rowing: in 1984, after winning the Olympic marathon silver medal in LA, John Treacy came back to St Anne’s, his old school, and seeing that medal inspired McGrath in fresh ways.
“I remember the day like yesterday. I’d started rowing at age 14, via the swimming club actually, when someone pointed out I’d probably be stronger in the boat that in the water. The closest pool was in Fermoy, and we’d go over by bus, and it so happens that a lot of people ended up in Cappoquin rowing. Life offers opportunity like that, and it’s a question of do you take it or not.
“And I would consider rowing my ‘way out’, the only way I could get myself out into the world, see what I could do. Rowing was definitely the vehicle for that. In Ireland in the 1980s you didn’t get to go many places, but rowing offered that opportunity. We’d be in Galway, Dublin, Cork. And it’s not races you remember. It’s the people and the growth and challenges along the way, adapting and coping, the fun and horror of it.
“My first job after leaving school was with the Waterford county council, and that’s what we did, sweep the streets, collected bins. I think of that Oscar Wilde saying, ‘we’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars . . . ’”
By 1991 he was rowing internationally in the Irish fours and eights, winning the Home Internationals, not far off qualifying for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Not long after that a lower back injury effectively crippled him, or at least forced him out of the boat.
“I had been into martial arts before, then went back into it more, trying to rehab the back, get more flexibility. It didn’t exactly work, but did take me on another journey. I’d started with karate at 13, was nearly 6ft as a teenager, very skinny, all the rest, and you do get picked on. So initially as a teenager there was that element of self defence.”
Only now it was a proper art – and among those McGrath trained under were Massan Ghorbani, the Iranian who still runs the Masters Temple club in Bray, also Ji Han-Jae, who once tutored Bruce Lee and co-starred in his final film Game of Death.
“Massan Ghorbani is an incredible martial arts instructor, still going strong, and he opened massive doors and opportunities for me. Ji Han-Jae too, still going strong too, over 80 now. In the early 2000s I really went for it with martial arts. I tend to be all-in like that. I had a school in Waterford, teaching Filipino martial arts, kombatan, reality-based self-defence, kickboxing, all of that.
“They say in martial arts if you spent the first year working for the right instructor, it’s the best year of your career. Same with most things in life. It’s about finding something that you can add value to, but also adds value to you.”
McGrath’s thoughts on MMA, by way of diversion, are suitably mixed: “I’ve worked with an MMA fighter here in South Africa, and a lot of it is about the person you work with. If you know someone in it, then you get an attachment. The only problem is Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of karate, said martial arts begins and ends with etiquette, and essentially, martial arts is firstly about learning about the ego, by breaking it down. You go in and you’re nothing, you can’t do much, and within a few years you can do a lot. But ultimately it’s about putting that ego back in its box.
“There are some issues with MMA, such as hitting a guy with his head on the floor. I think the consequences of stuff like that are yet to be determined. If your head can’t move like that . . . it’s different when it’s up, because it goes back in a whiplash movement, and absorbs the hit. But when it’s on the floor there is nowhere for the head to go, so . . . it’s problematic, a bit grey.
“Sure we all love Conor McGregor, and it’s great to follow him, but where it’s going, and what it does for society? There no’s doubt it does some good, offers some way for people to unleash some of that pent-up energy, and that can be a good thing. But how do you use it, portray it, it’s a difficult one.”
McGrath’s martial arts career then took a sudden knockout in 2009: “The economy tanked, and I don’t need to go back into that, except to say one of the first things to go are what people describe as the ‘non-essentials’, the gyms, all those things. That was pressure, it was hellish.
“I came to Cape Town by chance, on holiday, and I think like anyone who comes here in summertime, thought, ‘wow, wouldn’t it be great to live here?’ But I had no connections at all, didn’t know anybody, started from scratch again.”
His first break came when he got a part-time coaching job at Paarl Gimnasium high school, one of the most famous rugby schools in South Africa, whose graduates include Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, and more recently Handré Pollard, the Springbok outhalf. He’s also coached with the Blue Bulls.
“That was a great opportunity, working with those lads, even though the entire school is Afrikaans. Everyone speaks it, are quite protective of it, and rightly so, but I was the only English speaker in the entire school.”
By then McGrath had also earned his trade as a circus strongman, performing in America alongside the likes of Joe Rollino, one of the original Coney Island strongmen, who died in 2010 aged 104: “That came through the martial arts, learning some of the strongmen techniques” and he lists them off: bending iron bars into three loops, breaking out of chains and handcuffs, driving nails into wood with his bare fist, tearing up a deck of cards, etc
Last October, in New York, he set world record in nail bending, known as the Iron Mind Red Nails, bending seven of them, each requiring 230kg force to bend, within a minute.
Of the highlights of 2017 however was watching Luvo Manyonga win the long jump at the World Championships in London; the story of McGrath’s relationship with Manyonga has already been told (Donald McRae of the Guardian deftly capturing it in 2016 after Manyonga won Olympic silver in Rio), and no one disputes McGrath’s role in helping him lift his way out of drug addiction. Since his recent successes, however, Manyonga’s agents are keen to erase that part of his history, believing it doesn’t sit well with sponsors.
“When success like that comes, all sorts of other people come out of the woodwork, and there are two conflicting narratives here. Luvo’s management team essentially want to ‘change the narrative’. Here he is, a world champion, let’s get the most sponsorship we can. Of course I recognise that, and good luck to them all, but for me it’s not about that. Don’t deny what happened.
“I will always be there for Luvo, still see his family almost every week. No bad feelings, not at all. I celebrate all his success. He was South African sports star of the year, and my only wish is that he becomes the greatest long jumper of all time. He was down in Paarl before Christmas and I met him, but it’s edgy because there are two conflicting narratives here, and it’s not all sunshine and roses.
“My thing is to raise that person, and then you move on, work with other people. And these are the kind of things I talk about in coaching, that we have to get lot more lateral. Most of the time I spent with Luvo there was no direct coaching.
“The greatest progress in coaching is getting people to believe in what they can do. Most games are not won or lost because of technical competency. Most games are still in the melting pot with 10 or 20 minutes to go, and what happens then. Do guys revert to type? Are they afraid of winning? It’s in that thinking that games are won and lost.”
McGrath turned 50 last July, his next ambition to be stronger again at age 60; his back injury came back to haunt in 2016, and he ended up on crutches for eight months – before surgery, plus his own dedication, got him back on his feet.
“I’m not going to say everything has been amazing, it’s hard at times, not having family down here, but I’m careful about the stuff I do now, have added yoga, pilates. I still do mad stuff, bending steel bars with my teeth, but it’s not like doing a double summersault. It’s being able to focus the mind into that one second, as if putting your whole life on the line. Give it a high meaning, you will always find a way of doing it. If the meaning is low, you’re less likely to do it. It’s about creating leverage over yourself, and the strongman will always create leverage, master it.
“People need hope, and inspiration. It’s a predominantly negative world, but we have little to no control over most of it, except for what we do ourselves, how we manage our day. With the drinking, I knew I needed to give myself every chance, put everything I could in my favour, to be the best. And being vegetarian now is the same. I don’t need to advocate it, but I do think there are lots of myths we buy into, and I don’t think modern farming is particularly good for the animal, or for the person consuming it, when I can get just as much protein from nuts.
“And people talk about ‘hanging up the boots’, when they haven’t even started. You need training and flexibility and endurance even more as you go through your 40s and 50s and 60s. It’s about getting people internally motivated. The external stuff is less important. By lifting others, you also lift yourself, inspire yourself. People think just because you’re a motivational speaker you run around on a high the whole time. I don’t, I find certain situations hard.
“And it’s very easy to be cynical about the GAA. Give them some credit, they’ve really moved on, modernised incredibly well. I know there’s a lot of stuff about fixtures, but look at what they do. My whole thing is to raise people through the medium of sport, and I think the GAA essentially does that, helps communities and individuals under the guise of sport. Looking at it from afar, I still admire the GAA, hope that ethos can survive.”
Just some of the thoughts McGrath is bringing back home to Croke Park on Saturday.