The Irishman who propelled meth addict to Olympic silver
John McGrath, a Waterford strongman and former champion rower and kickboxer, helped disgraced athlete Luvo Manyonga choose between the podium and death. But his transformation was no road to Damascus, he tells our reporter
Luvo Manyonga's face suggested silver was enough. A little after 10 on a Saturday night back in August, he'd just been beaten down to the second step of the podium in the last round of the long jump final. But of course silver was enough. He grabbed a South African flag, beamed out the sort of smile that most in the arena didn't fully understand and began to ask himself a question.
"Is this real? Is this real? Is this real?"
By then it was after three in the morning back in the Western Cape, and John McGrath sat on a friend's sofa, the moment allowing for a brief break from the brutal pain. The Waterford native had gone through a double back operation a couple of days earlier, but this achievement did more than even the high doses of morphine. As much as the eyes of the world were on Manyonga and what he'd achieved, he'd helped him to achieve - and, at a personal level, that meant everything. Indeed, had he heard the question in his friend's head, he would have had an instant answer. "Of course it's real."
McGrath didn't sleep that night, instead pausing there, taking it all in. "It was very unusual," he recalls. "Only when it was done, half an hour after, I got emotional. I was re-experiencing the things we'd been through. We laughed a lot together. That will be my memory - the great fun." It was an emotion he couldn't have expected when his search for, and salvation of, Luvo began.
Back in 2013, McGrath was a strength and conditioning coach for the South African women's tug-of-war team as they claimed bronze at the World Games in Colombia. And it was there he asked an official about the long jumper. Manyonga was a freak of an athlete; however, he was a product of his environment. He first tried tik - the local version of crystal meth used by as many as half a million in the Western Cape - in the Mbekweni township in 2011. Quickly, he became addicted to the point his out-of-competition use spilled over into all-round use and he failed a drugs test. Suspended for 18 months for doping of the kind that is anything but performance enhancing, his country first ignored and then forgot him. Indeed, McGrath was told that as a South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee-affiliated coach, he couldn't go near a banned athlete.
But just you wait, he thought.
"Say to an Irishman, you can't do something," he laughs. "Well f**k that. When I got back, the first thing I did was go looking for him. I drove into the township, but that wasn't going to work - somebody my size looking for a guy at the time, that's a bit ropey. But I knew a pastor, Eugene Maqwelan, he connected us. And we hit it off. But I never gave his addiction too much focus apart from when he'd look rough, as what you focus on grows. It was unprofessional as I got too close, but that's what was needed. I had to do the right thing."
One step forward, two back.
It became a theme in athletics and in life. Manyonga would disappear - and without a phone, as anything and everything would be lost when using. It left McGrath concerned but never in a panic. In the township, there was always a pulse, a feeling, a sighting. Sponsors wouldn't touch him though, even refusing a pair of spikes, and when McGrath went out to buy some, he got the wrong kind that kept getting stuck in the board. McGrath reunited him with Mario Smith, the coach who he'd fallen out with, but he was killed in a crash. Manyonga set out for the funeral but never made it, instead meeting friends on a corner and getting high.
One step forward, two back.
"I got Luvo into daily training and he qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games but his papers were 'lost'. The same type of people who threw away his qualification, well they didn't want to know about this guy. It was only through a newspaper article - it was a game changer due to the pressure it put politically. But Luvo's transformation wasn't like a road to Damascus."
There was a stage when McGrath said Manyonga would either be on an Olympic podium in 2016 or dead by 30, as the young athlete would tell him about friends killed on his doorstep. "With tik, someone owes money or there's a bust and you're there. If you do the right thing, you end up in the right places with the right people. If you go against that, something is going to come up bad." He was right - it was a choice between a podium and death.
And that was the reason behind Manyonga's smile that night in August, and McGrath easing into the couch and forgetting about the screams from his back. It should have been the perfect climax but life's tales aren't always book-ended neatly; relationships sometimes just have an ending, rather than a happy one.
* * *
With some interviews you can sit back and let the cogs of the recorder roll and do all the work.
John McGrath is sitting in a restaurant in Cape Town, his giant frame extending as he narrates his 49 years with passion and depth. Modern sport sometimes makes you cynical, yet it can be worth wading through all the bullshit for moments and people like this.
He starts into his youth. Secondary school. The same height, but weighing 65kg, the bullying started. Bad bullying. Reaching the point of cigarettes being extinguished on his chest. "Through my journey, I came to believe the victim invited the attacker as much as the other way, and if you've a victim mentality, you get what you expect in life. With the subconscious, we create our world and the rest flows to it."
Such thinking came along after he took up martial arts in order to stand up for himself, but his real break came when he discovered rowing. While swimming one day, a coach nearby saw his raw strength and told him he could one day be in a boat for Ireland. "I was shocked. Ireland isn't like that, they don't tell you that you can do things. It's a hard country to grow up in, and that was the early 1980s, too. There wasn't a lot of hope or opportunity - get your Leaving Cert and a labouring job was as much as you expected. And I did. I was a binman in Waterford and swept streets there."
But just you wait, he thought.
"I had found rowing, which was to be a saviour. It was an outlet for my power, but beyond that, it was my out. My ticket to do something with my life. It opened doors, and I rowed the fours and eights. I liked the camaraderie. In any crew, you won't get on with everyone but you've to respect them. I learned, if you are arguing, putting someone down as opposed to a genuine debate, you are putting yourself down." A metaphor for life. Or at least a metaphor for his own amazing life.
By 1999, he was Irish rower of the year, but soon after his back popped. Still, on he went, taking up the scholarship he earned in WIT as a result of his sporting achievement, and he returned to martial arts in the hope it would return the movement and mobility, and get him in a boat again. It didn't. Still, on he went, allowing it to give him something else. He found himself looking up to Massan Ghorbani, an Iranian who runs the Masters Temple club in Bray. He found himself in the Philippines with his skin being picked at by sand lice after training. He found himself under Bruce Lee's teacher DoJuNim Ji. He found himself kickboxing for Ireland. And he found a lot more too.
"A lot of fancy Dans come and go in all spheres but it's the ones who stick at it. At 39, I fought, and I'm glad I did, but for me it's more about the person you become. Sport is sport, it can be rotten, but martial arts, rowing too, I guess I'm attracted to the pureness of sport that still exists in places."
It's why he takes the conversation towards hurling and home for a moment. He knew Waterford hurler Tony Browne through a friend, and was asked to get involved with Mount Sion towards the turn of the century. "I'll always remember it. Sitting in a room the night before a game and listening to guys like Pádraig Ó Fainín, once GAA president. To hear him talk, I get goosebumps now.
"To hear him speak for an hour without stopping, to piece it all together like a symphony. No notes, a speech created on the spot. I'm there in awe. It was theatre. Poetry.
"It was life-changing to be involved."
He might have been involved more in Ireland but for chance. After being part of the Carlow backroom team that won the 2008 Christy Ring Cup, a friend booked them plane tickets for Cape Town. They reached Amsterdam and were told the booking was wrong and they shouldn't have even got that far. They'd have to buy new tickets through Germany to go on, and with McGrath thinking this was enough - and his friend talking about the party awaiting - his mind was torn.
He flipped a coin.
A piece of metal twirled through the air and decided for him. "We got here finally and I sat down with a coffee, looked up at that mountain and said to myself, 'I could live here'."
Just you wait, he thought.
* * *
John McGrath moved to Cape Town in 2009 and then on to Paarl, a pocket of wine country about an hour outside. More famously though it's rugby country, home to Paarl Gimnasium high school which has produced the likes of Pieter Rossouw, De Wet Barry, Marius Joubert, Jean De Villiers, Schalk Burger and many more. There, he now trains the next generation of Springboks and he also opened up a gym. But even there, there's politics and the importance of race.
"Here, everything - even sport - has an undertone. Like rugby is strong in the Cape with those of mixed race, it's not traditionally strong in black areas. But when you come from certain backgrounds in South Africa, well, sport isn't really top of the list."
His first example of this other life is Joyce Manyonga, the mother of Luvo. A cleaner for a white woman, working for around €10 a day, he says "she's lucky to have a job. A great, great woman. Even at the beginning, when I went to seek him out and offer guidance, she was never suspicious. I've had a really good relationship with his family from day one. They've become my friends. But it's sad..."
In the days after Luvo Manyonga's Olympic heroics, the world quickly picked up on his effort. The media loved the story of his past. Others, such as South Africa's public, loved the glory of his present. But there were those who loved the potential of his future.
"Sad," he repeats. When Donald McRae of The Guardian did a superb feature on Manyonga last year, what jumped out was the attitude to McGrath. Lee Roy Newton, his new agent, talked about wanting to "change the narrative" and warned the journalist against even meeting McGrath. It was the bleaching of modern sport, the corporate world looking for the sanitised version, even when there should be acceptance of - and admiration for - the dirt and grime left behind by life's downs and ups.
"He's now being surrounded by new people. They want him to look as clean as he possibly can. But I've a different viewpoint. I think Luvo's journey is glorious because of what he achieved, and I think they are doing him and the world a terrible injustice by manoeuvring this. A lot of those guys are Johnny-come-latelys. In 2013, there was nobody training Luvo, nobody visiting Luvo, nobody supporting Luvo. And I never made money from Luvo, the opposite. I support his family to this day. It was never a question of that.
"It's a question of seeing the potential in someone and knowing you have the potential to unlock that through your experience, of working with a complex character. People may try and diminish that, but trying to airbrush it isn't actually helping him. You must keep it real. But I learned too from it - that you've to be generous about it. Think long term, the bigger picture, think of the struggle he's in every day as well. For me, it's sad to see it this way, but I don't look at Luvo as being ungrateful. When you travel a journey with someone, you both get something out of that journey."
* * *
You ask what next for the odd couple, and he shrugs, citing Manyonga's move to Pretoria to train - and to get away from the dens of his addiction close to home. A distance factor, sure, but there's still that other barrier as well, put up by those who showed up when the work was done. "I'll continue to help the family, and I'll always be there for Luvo," says McGrath. "But success for me in this is enabling a person to manage life on their own. I've no need to be attached to the Luvo story going forward. I do hope there are enough safeguards, and everything will be okay for Luvo, though. But me, I've my own story to write."
* * *
To try and pigeonhole a character like McGrath isn't easy. Motivational speaker? Life saver? Strength and conditioning coach? Martial artist? Sports psychologist? He prefers these days to be seen as a strongman. In fact, later this year, he plans to break the Guinness world record by bending 10 six-inch nails in less than 21 seconds. He did say he'd his own story to write. Back when training in fight sports, he quickly realised that he wasn't going to be going down the Jackie Chan route of back-flips and bouncing along walls. His talent was power, and that fitted in nicely with a memory from childhood. Passing the circus, he once saw a poster with a guy lifting a beer keg and the potential for prize money of £50 for anyone who could do similar.
Just you wait, he thought.
"I found out about these old-time strongmen who used to perform in Vaudeville. It was a genre of entertainment from 1865 to 1914. Video killed the radio star? Well, movies killed Vaudeville. And I was always curious about these guys. It poked me. I started training, researching it."
It led him to New York in 2006, and specifically the doorstep of the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen. There he got talking to a 104-year-old called Joe 'The Great' Rollino who, in his youth, had trained with James Braddock and had worked on stage with Harry Houdini. It poked him ever harder as the fascination was growing, and soon it was taking over. "It's about finding your thing in life, and that's a very unique thing. When I came back to Ireland, it was like, 'What are you doing bending nails? What the f**k are you up to now? Is that the latest thing, Ted?' But if it's your thing, you must follow it. All the things you ever do will lead you towards your gift."
So what is this gift? The two feats he's most proud of will go along way to explaining - even if it can be hard to comprehend. The first is Alexander Zass's iron scroll, which involves bending a steel bar into three loops. The other involves driving a nail through seven centimetres of wood with a clout of his bare first. "The only guarantee is the nail goes through, and that for me is as much about doubt - the doubt I have when I'm lining that up and the sick feeling I have inside my stomach - and I'm asking myself, 'why do I have to do it, what am I doing this for?' But it's to show the possibilities."
To do it, his preparation involves isometric training - end-of-range work. If he were to bench press 100kg, he's getting power in the wrong places, so instead he puts up to 300kg on a bench and lifts it just a couple of centimetres, holding it until the pressure causes him to black out. "I also visualise it. The mind cannot tell the difference between a real and imaginary experience. At the time, there's so much adrenaline. If your why is big enough, you'll find a how, so I put my whole life at stake as if it depended on this. As if these people would never see me, my one chance to make an impact."
He started demonstrations for the rugby kids in school and it's even taken him to the Blue Bulls training camp in Pretoria. Super 14 champions in 2009 and 2010, the Bulls were a team renowned for physicality enforced by the likes of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Yet they were taken aback by his strength as he bent everything from steel bars to horse shoes. More recently, he got a call from the Ray D'Arcy Show, asking if he'd try his world record attempt live on air later in the year.
"It will be very special, a homecoming after the journey I've been on. For me, the feats themselves are metaphors for what's possible. We all live in such limited belief systems and construct these cages around ourselves regarding what's possible. So it's a metaphor for breaking those self-limiting beliefs we place on ourselves and others place upon us. All this strongman stuff has been since I came here, and it's why I'm looking forward to going back, to inspire people and bring something of a positive nature.
"I'll be 50 in July, and I believe my best years are ahead of me, which is again about breaking self-limits. I still think my best stuff is to come. I'm only starting."
Just you wait, he thinks one more time.