In the iconic Farnese statue of Atlas, you would swear the Greek god’s left eye was looking towards South Africa’s Cape peninsula on the globe that he his holding. Real-life titan John McGrath, who moved to Cape Town in 2009 after his business and property portfolio in Ireland fell prey to the financial crash, might see a parallel there.
McGrath runs a successful CrossFit gym in Cape Town and, in his spare time, visits some of the poorest townships surrounding the mother city. There, he performs feats of strength for the locals, with the aim of encouraging disadvantaged young people to take up sport and other healthy activities.
He is beginning to get noticed back home. “Ironically, I had to leave Ireland, in order to be seen as successful there,” McGrath says, en route to Manenberg, outside Cape Town, where he is about to perform to a gathering of eager locals.
“Not wanting to sound corny, but I do these kinds of things in order to give something back. The young people living here don’t think they have a future and I want to show them that, despite the odds, they do.”
In Ireland, McGrath had invested all his savings in property, which went into negative equity, while his gym in the city saw memberships plummet almost overnight. “When things go bad, people quit all their superfluous outgoings, gyms being top of the list,” he says. “My life could have fallen apart, but I didn’t let it.”
With skills ranging from martial arts to rugby coaching, as well as his abilities as a strongman, he felt he could bring something unique to Cape Town.
“I’ve been involved in sports since I was a kid. I started rowing at 13 and ended up on the Irish team,” he says. “When my career came to an abrupt end after an injury, aged 24, I decided to turn my attention to martial arts — karate, kickboxing, kung fu, hapkido, and kombatan, which I learnt in the Philippines.”
He became a “strongman” while attending Waterford Institute of Technology.
At Manenberg, he unpacks an array of kit that wouldn’t look out of place in a torture chamber. An expectant audience gathers, made up of young kids, gang members, babies, grandparents and other township residents. I chat to some of them while a gospel choir starts to sing. “My son was shot dead just here,” one woman tells me, pointing to a patch of ground beside us. “Right here, in front of my house.”
“I don’t know why,” she adds, shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head.
Gerry, a tattooed former “general” in one of the notorious “numbers gangs”, which it is thought you need to join to survive prison in South Africa, tells me how someone stuck a nail into his head during his 18-year stint in jail. He points at the scar and leans towards me. “I’m a member of the 26 gang, then there’s the 27s and the 28s,” he says.
McGrath is introduced to the crowd and he cuts to the chase. “Everyone is amazing at something,” he assures those present. “I wasn’t born with these skills. I acquired them. I was born poor, with no electricity,” he discloses, as he unpacks a 18cm railroad spike, which looks like a massive nail. He takes a few deep breaths and with his arms bends it underneath his neck. The audience cheers loudly.
More physical feats follow. He breaks out of a chain wrapped around his chest just by breathing, tears up whole decks of cards and hammers a 15cm nail into a log with the palm of his hand.
“My natural strength is just a hook. I want to show them how to tap into inner strength, too. I know I can’t change the world with this stuff, but I really get my kicks out of trying,” McGrath says. “I do this stuff in my own time. No one asks me to be here. Sometimes you can get disheartened, but there are success stories.”
He also mentors young sportspeople from the townships. His proudest achievement to date is coaching Luvo Manyonga, from the Mbekweni township near Paarl. Manyonga went on to become long-jump world champion and Olympic silver medallist.
The young athlete’s life was falling apart when McGrath first met him. He had been suspended by the sports governing body because of his crystal meth addiction and his coach had died in a freak accident en route to see him. “He was in a bad way. I met him and I said, ‘I’m coming on this journey with you from here,’” McGrath recalls.
“We did lots of mental and physical strength training. There were many times he could have given up, but on his very last effort he qualified for the Olympic Games in Rio.”
McGrath has since been working with Junior Mphefu, a 19-year-old long-jump protegé and 17-year-old pole-vaulter, Valco van Wyk.
“There is so much potential here. Three of the world’s top long jumpers come from this part of the world. I keep my ear to the ground, hunt down anyone with talent and then help them navigate a career for themselves,” McGrath says.
He is writing a book based on his motivation techniques and, despite being 14,000km away from home, he says his career in Ireland has kicked off. Last weekend, he addressed 700 coaches at the GAA Games Development Conference, in Croke Park. “Had I stayed in Ireland and not fallen foul to the recession, I wouldn’t be a keynote speaker. I had to come all this way to be a success at home.”
He has plans to develop this side of his career, as a motivational speaker for business as well as sport. “What I do is cross-sectional. You can apply the same teachings to people from townships as you can to people from corporate backgrounds.”
As I depart, we give Mphefu a lift — he’s off for more training. McGrath sorts him out with refreshments, clearly relishing his role as mentor and friend. “He’s great. He’s going to do well,” McGrath says. “But it’s not always easy. Even when you set guys on a path, they can get sidetracked by drugs or unhelpful friends. You can do your best.
“People often stop living in their twenties — it’s not just a thing here, its a global thing. We should try not to be held back by self-limiting beliefs because they stop us from achieving our authentic potential.”