Man of steel John McGrath bending the world to his will
By John Harrington
When John McGrath took to the stage at last weekend’s GAA Games Development Conference, the lighting guy had to scramble quickly.
He clearly hadn’t anticipated someone as big as McGrath would be speaking, because his spotlight only reached as far as the 6'6'' Waterford man’s neck and left much of his face shadowed.
Not for the first time in his eventful life, McGrath had confounded expectations and disproven the theory that one size fits all.
Is his 50 years on this earth he has been, among other things, a hurler, a bin-man, an international rower, an elite martial artist, a strength and conditioning coach, and a world-record breaking circus strong-man.
He set that record just last October when he successfully bent seven IronMind Red Nails in just 60 seconds.
The ‘nails’ in question were round pieces of cold rolled steel measuring seven inches long and 5/16’’ in diameter, and for a long time even being able to bend one was considered a famous feat of strength.
McGrath is also capable of driving a steel nail through a three-inch piece of hardwood with just his bare hand, and bending steel bars through his teeth. Neither a feat that’s easily done, you won't be surprised to hear.
“Bending a steel bar through your teeth is one of the most unpleasant experiences imaginable,” McGrath told GAA.ie.
“But if you’re to be able to do something exceptional, then you have to be prepared to pay the price.
“You’ve got to go somewhere where other people won’t go with your mind if you’re to do incredible things.”
The theme of last weekend’s coaching conference was ‘Think It, Do It, Become It’, which could just as easily be the motto that McGrath has lived his life by.
Adversity has always been something to embrace and challenges are there to be overcome. That mindset has brought him down some interesting paths.
Fast forward to the present day and he’s living in Paarl in South Africa and has earned renown as a strength and conditioning coach working with rugby players, the South African women’s tug-of-war team, and, most famously, Olympic silver medal and World Athletics Championship gold medal long jumper, Luvo Manyonga.
But the journey that has brought him to that destination has been no less eclectic as he transitioned from being an Irish international rower to an Irish international martial artist and also reconnected with his GAA roots along the way.
“I've changed radically over the years,” he admits. “I always knew that sport would be my vehicle for change. And by changing myself I could change others, and that cycle continues.
“I've changed enormously. Profoundly. Massive, massive changes. But, you know, I've never forgotten where I come from. I'm very comfortable about where I come from. I love the people where I come from.”
Where he’s from originally is Knockanore in West Waterford, but today he considers himself a Mount Sion man first and foremost.
That’s because his stint with the club as their strength and conditioning coach when they won three-in-row county titles as well as the Munster Championship left an indelible mark on him.
“After I got injured in rowing I did a scholarship in WIT where I did my coaching and I met Tony Browne one day and he convinced me to come to Mount Sion," said McGrath. "I was a bit reluctant at the beginning but it was one of the greatest things that I ever did.
“It sent me on an incredible journey into hurling with an exceptional club. They’re my club now and will always be.
“It was an incredible time to be involved because Waterford hurling was really coming through and to be involved with these guys as a strength and conditioning coach and work with some of the legends of the game like Brian Flannery, Brian Greene, Tony Browne, Eoin McGrath, and Ken McGrath was fantastic.
“It was just was a real honour to work with guys like that and facilitate them by giving them an engine to go and express themselves in a marvellous way.
“When you coach people you don’t just teach them, you learn a lot from the people you work with along the journey.”
Jim Green was Mount Sion manager at the time and later brought McGrath with him as S&C coach when he was appointed as Carlow’s county hurling team manager.
They were a good double-act there too, helping Carlow to win their first Christy Ring Cup in 2008.
Shortly after that success McGrath went to Cape Town in South Africa for a holiday and decided he liked the place enough to settle there permanently.
He got a coaching job with Paarl Gimnasium high school, a famous South African rugby academy that boasts current Springbok Handre Pollard and former stars Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers among its sporting alumni.
In 2013, he was strength and conditioning coach for the South African women’s tug-of-war team that claimed bronze against the odds at the World Games in Colombia.
But perhaps his greatest achievement as a coach was his rehabilitation of long jumper Manyonga who had been suspended in 2012 after testing positive for Tik, a South African variant of crystal meth which is anything but performance enhancing.
At that point Manyonga’s athletics career wasn’t just in tatters, as a crystal meth addict his life expectancy was bleak too.
McGrath heard his story and it struck such a chord with him that he felt compelled to do all he could to help Manyonga despite never having met him in his life before.
“I started asking people what we could do to help him because it seemed wrong. It seemed like an injustice,” said McGrath.
“If you work with an athlete who's banned, then you as a coach get banned too.
“But maybe it's an Irish thing, but it just seemed unfair to me, the odds were against him and it seemed unfair to cast a guy like that aside who had such a prodigious talent and just leave him to rot.
“So I started looking for Luvo. And when you go into a township it's not like you can just knock on a door and ask, 'Is Luvo here?' Especially if you're a 6' 6'' white guy who's looking for a black kid who's on crystal meth. No-one is inclined to tell you where he is.”
The short version of what happened next is that McGrath eventually found Manyong, brought him to train in his gym in Paarl, helped him get back on the straight and narrow, and thereby played a pivotal role in the long-jumper’s unexpected renaissance the culminated in his silver medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and his gold medal at last year's World Athletics Championships.
His role in Luvo's comeback is a source of huge pride for McGrath, because he believes there are few things more important in life than realising your own latent potential and helping others to do the same.
“There's more to us than what meets the eye,” he said. “We're all created to do something amazing, we're all created to do something special, but few of us have the courage to go and grasp it.
“And when you do grasp that you become a marvellous human being who can really help the world. But it takes a lot of courage.
“I've been down and almost out as many times as Luvo. But I kept going. Like that Martin Luther King quote, if you can't run, you walk. And if you can't walk, you crawl. And eventually you'll make it.
“I found myself out of some tough circumstances and I'm still walking.
“Through that, you can then have empathy with other people. When you've been in difficult times you can have empathy and you're slow to judge people.
“Without struggle there is no improvement. All strength comes through struggle, be it mentally, physically, or spiritually.
“When you come through the tough times in training both mentally and spiritually as well as physically, one gains growth, if you are prepared to seek and accept it.
“You've got to put yourself through tough times. The body is capable of far more than you might think.
“The body has a limiter like a car, and when it goes above certain revs the mind says, 'that's enough now, you have to stay in a safe zone'. When actually you're capable of doing a bit more.
“I've managed to somehow removed that limiter for certain things. I've tricked my mind into saying that I can do it. I see it and I believe it. I've been tricking my mind for 20 years doing this stuff.
“And as a coach I try to trick other people's minds. I try to take that limiter off of them.
“And by doing that I've been able to do unbelievable feats myself and help others achieve what they were born to do without any knowledge of the sport itself.”
He’s convinced too that the best is yet to come in his own journey through life.
He’ll be 60 in ten years’ time and plans to be stronger then than he is now.
There's more records to break and always more iron to bend to his will.
“The feats of strength are what I do,” he said. They're what I can do. They're not about, 'look how great I am'.
“I'm just doing my thing, I'm doing what I was born to do and communicating to the world using those (feats of strength) as a metaphor.
“That's my thing. But we all have things that we are good at. And when we find these things and pour our lives into them and share them with the world, then we get to change the world.”