John McGrath was hunting a ghost: a man more than two decades his junior who seemed to melt into thin air. Every few days in the spring of 2013, McGrath, a 46-year-old native of Ireland, climbed into his black Jeep and drove ten miles from his home in the city of Paarl, South Africa, to Mbekweni, a predominately black township. He guided the thick tires of his vehicle around the potholes and puddles dotting Mbekweni’s narrow streets. He drove past small shops and roadside kiosks selling apples, potatoes, cigarettes, snuff, and gum. McGrath kept his window rolled down so that he could ask passersby if they had seen the phantom he was looking for: Luvo Manyonga, a young man full of possibility.
McGrath knew a thing or two about possibility. A strength coach for competitive athletes, he’d recently spent 18 months training the South African women’s tug-of-war team for the 2013 World Games, an event held every four years featuring sports that aren’t part of the Olympics. The women weren’t expected to do well—other countries had far better teams—but McGrath cared little for odds, records, and other supposed predictors of athletic success. He believed in hard work, hope, and surprises. Six-foot-six, with a chiseled torso and sculpted arms, he embodied the principles of his training methods. He’d weathered personal obstacles to become a rower and, later, an old-fashioned strongman, bending steel bars and other unlikely objects in front of stunned audiences. With his guidance, South Africa’s tug-of-war team won the bronze medal at the World Games.
The games were the reason McGrath had first heard about Luvo Manyonga. As part of his preparation, he’d attended a two-day symposium of coaches, trainers, and members of the South Africa Sports Commission and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). The meeting was held at a hotel in Johannesburg, in a conference room where the walls were lined with life-size posters of South African athletes in action. One of the images showed Manyonga in midstride, as if running on air. He was long and lithe, his legs extended and arms spread wide, as if every muscle in his body were pushing, propelling, willing him forward. He was jumping because that’s what he did best: Manyonga was one of the most promising long jumpers the world had ever seen.
McGrath found himself staring at the image, but not because of Manyonga’s height, form, or technique. “It was something about his eyes that pulled me in,” McGrath told me. “I recognized something in his face.” What, exactly, McGrath couldn’t quite say. But he was transfixed.
Despite Manyonga’s prominent photograph, South Africa’s top sporting authorities only rarely spoke about the young man anymore. He’d broken the country’s long-jump record at the age of 18 and had won international medals. He’d been on track to compete at the 2012 London Olympics, but his demons had gotten the better of him. He’d tested positive for methamphetamine and been banned from competition for 18 months. Sascoc, which determines which South African athletes compete for their country on the global stage, had all but turned its back on him.
Squandered talent, delegates of the Johannesburg meeting told McGrath, shaking their heads. Their resignation sparked his interest. He decided to find Manyonga and offer to train the athlete widely considered too toxic to touch.
Tracking Manyonga down wasn’t easy. He was still using drugs and sometimes pawned his cell phone for cash, which made him difficult to reach. So McGrath went looking for the athlete at his family’s home in Mbekweni. Manyonga lived in a four-room house on Machule Street that was hot in summer and cold in winter. It had been built atop the ruins of another structure destroyed by fire. McGrath parked his Jeep and walked up a path strewn with rubble, the remains of the other home, to the back door. He was ushered into the cramped living quarters by Manyonga’s mother, Joyce, a short, gospel-loving domestic worker in her sixties, and Vuyiseka, his elder sister.
Joyce and Vuyiseka said they had no idea where Manyonga was. They rarely did. Around Mbekweni, the would-be track star was known to scrounge and steal to feed his habit. If McGrath wanted to find him, he could try two of Manyonga’s preferred hangouts—the community center and the railway station—or linger through the night at Rennie’s Corner, a dingy nightclub.
Or, Joyce offered, McGrath could talk to Eugene Maqwelana, who ran Living Hope Ministries, a local evangelical church. Maqwelana’s father had once played rugby with Luvo’s father. As a respected pastor, he was well-connected and heard almost every shred of gossip that circulated through the 30,000-person township.
When McGrath reached out, Maqwelana was surprised. White men with blue eyes didn’t appear in his church very often. The pastor knew that Manyonga, who sometimes attended Bible classes held by Living Hope Ministries, was sliding quickly toward rock bottom. “Luvo was so raw,” Maqwelana told me. “One night in my Bible class, I asked if anyone would like to say anything, and he said yes and stood up and asked us to pray for him. After that he just wept. You could really see that this boy was broken.” Any punt on the township’s pride turned prodigal son seemed worth taking. Maqwelana promised McGrath that he’d find Manyonga and set up a meeting.
Through other youth in the Bible class, Maqwelana got word to Manyonga that his presence was requested at the community center, to meet with the pastor and an Irishman. In the township, if a pastor says he wants to see you, he isn’t giving you a choice. Social custom dictates that you show up looking your best—clean pants, pressed shirt, shined shoes—and listen respectfully to what he has to say.
Manyonga did one better, arriving at the appointed time with a white Panama hat on his cleanly shaven head. Maqwelana interpreted the dapper accessory as a signal that the young man was eager to impress, even if he wouldn’t admit it. Maqwelana believed that deep down, despite being 22 and cocky, Manyonga wanted salvation.
The pastor introduced the two men and then left McGrath to make his pitch. Manyonga slumped slightly in his chair, wearing the neutral face he reserved for the authority figures in his life—teachers, parents, and Pastor Eugene. Sensing his audience’s unease, McGrath turned his wooden chair around so that he could straddle it and lean his thick forearms atop the back. The posture was informal and friendly; it also took the edge off the perpetual pain in McGrath’s back, the result of injuries sustained over years of athletic competition.
“Listen, Luvo, I know where you’re at,” McGrath began, his voice thick with a liquid Irish brogue. “I believe you can be an incredible jumper, and I believe I have the skill to get you going toward your dreams.”
McGrath was careful not to wag a finger or spout holier-than-thou warnings and maxims. He didn’t want to come off as judgmental. He didn’t give a damn if Manyonga liked to get high, but here was the thing, McGrath said: Manyonga had the sort of talent that comes around once in a blue moon. There are precious few people who have both the ability and the opportunities necessary to become a Michael Phelps or a Usain Bolt. The track world had for all intents and purposes abandoned Manyonga. His family was worried sick. He had everything to gain. What was there to lose?
“So how about you come and train with me then, Luvo?” McGrath asked.
Manyonga pursed his lips and moved them sideways, screwing up his face as he mulled over the question. Finally, his mouth broke into a half-grin, charming yet boyishly shy.
“OK,” he said. “When?”
McGrath raised an eyebrow. “Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at 10 a.m.”
“Get ready,” Manyonga said, “because I’ll show you who’s boss.”
“I know you will, Luvo,” McGrath replied.
With that, Manyonga stood up and walked out. McGrath watched him and his Panama hat go. He could only wonder if the long jumper would actually show up to train, but he knew that the stakes felt sky-high. By the age of 30, McGrath thought, either Manyonga would be standing on an Olympic podium or he’d be lying in a gutter, dead from an overdose. What McGrath didn’t know, and perhaps couldn’t, was that the choice Manyonga made that day would shape the course of the Irishman’s life, too.
Manyonga had sports in his blood. His mother grew up in the dusty Eastern Cape village of Dordrecht, where she sprinted and played netball, a game similar to basketball. His father, John, was willowy and long necked and became a rugby winger—a position often given to the fastest athletes—for teams in upcountry mining towns.
The couple moved from their rural home to the growing sprawl of the Western Cape in 1977, settling in Mbekweni, a township of concrete houses and tin shanties. Joyce got seasonal work picking grapes, and John operated a forklift and played for the local rugby team, Paarl Blues. Things were tight for the growing family even before John lost his job. By the time Manyonga was born in 1991, during the waning years of South Africa’s apartheid regime, John was consistently unemployed and frequently absent from home. Joyce took up the financial slack as a domestic worker for an Indian woman in Paarl, a town of vineyards and whitewashed houses.
Manyonga was a solitary child. He spent much of his time watching television by himself, pencils in hand, re-creating what he saw on the screen on scraps of paper. He drew cartoon figures, some of which still hung on the walls of the family’s Machule Street home when McGrath visited years later. “He was very quiet. He never had friends,” Vuyiseka said of her baby brother.
The only time Manyonga seemed to find his place in the neighborhood was when he played a game called three sticks, or drie stokkies in Afrikaans. Jumpers took turns hopping over the sticks, which were placed at regular intervals and moved farther and farther apart with each round. Anyone who couldn’t clear all three was eliminated. Manyonga was always the last one standing.
As he grew, so did Manyonga’s enthusiasm for jumping. He began leaping over random objects—car tires, plastic crates, cardboard boxes—lying around Mbekweni. By the time he was a teenager, he attracted street-corner audiences who clapped and gasped in admiration as he cleared long lines or tall piles of stuff. Jumping made him feel free and at peace. “It is as if when I jump,” he told me years later, “I am just in heaven.” It also gave him something to do so instead of getting into trouble with his chommies, boys he knew in the township.
In high school, Manyonga joined the track team. His school didn’t have the facilities or coaching to help him nurture his natural ability, but once or twice a season the team competed in regional meets at Coetzenburg Stadium, about 20 miles from Mbekweni, on the quiet, tree-lined campus of the University of Stellenbosch. It was at one such meet in early 2009 that Mario Smith saw Manyonga perform the long jump.
Smith was the no-nonsense, chain-smoking head of the university’s athletics department. “He’s a guy who looks at the data, runs the numbers, and keeps his emotions in check,” said Shaun de Jager, one of Smith’s track and field athletes at the time. What Smith witnessed in Manyonga was a body moving with such casual grace that it was almost scandalous.
The long jump dates back as far as the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. It involves an athlete taking a running start, reaching a takeoff point, and leaping as far as they can into a narrow sand or dirt pit. When Manyonga prepared for a jump, he stood up straight, his head tilted toward the sky. As he hurtled down the runway, he adjusted his stride pattern so that he’d launch from his left foot, departing earth for air. At the apex of the jump, Manyonga’s favorite part, he seemed to yearn for his legs to grow just a little longer. Often, in that moment, he flashed his teeth, giving the impression that he was on the brink of a raucous laugh.
Smith approached Manyonga and asked to be his coach, even though Manyonga wasn’t a student at the university. It was a canny move: Smith recognized that he could do something for Manyonga and that the reverse might be equally true. Manyonga, a world-class talent, could make Smith’s name as a coach outside university sports, maybe even outside South Africa.
There were complications from the start. Athletes of Manyonga’s caliber typically adhere to a strict daily training schedule, but money for transportation from Mbekweni to Stellenbosch was in short supply. “Luvo couldn’t be there every day,” De Jager told me. Still, the young man’s ability blossomed. “The amazing thing was that Luvo could understand immediately what Mario said,” De Jager observed. “What took other athletes weeks took him days. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
The first major test of Smith and Manyonga’s partnership came in July 2009, when they traveled to Mauritius for the African Junior Athletics Championships. Despite having worked with Smith for only a few months, Manyonga jumped 7.49 meters and came in third. Before long he was hitting 8 meters in practice, good enough to put him in medal contention at the Olympics, should he ever get there.
In July 2010, at the World Junior Championships in New Brunswick, Canada, De Jager figured it was a no-brainer that Manyonga would seize gold. But it wasn’t so easy. Competitive long jumping has two rounds, a qualifier and a final. The top 12 jumpers in the qualifier advance to the finals, where each takes three jumps. The top eight then take another three turns. The person with the best distance across those six jumps wins. At the junior worlds, Manyonga’s only real competition was Spain’s Eusebio Cáceres, and after five jumps, Manyonga held the lead at 7.7 meters. Then Cáceres posted a 7.72, leaving Manyonga one last turn to retake the lead.
Smith, known for his cool, clinical demeanor, pulled from a blue packet the latest of many Rothmans cigarettes he’d smoked during the finals. He lit up in the warm Canadian evening. Manyonga stepped to the line, sprinted toward the pit, and lifted off. When he landed, he’d smashed Cáceres’s distance, jumping 7.99 meters.
“Mario just freaked out,” De Jager recalled. Smith dashed toward Manyonga and grabbed him in a hug. “Luvo is just one of those super energetic guys, bouncing all over the place,” De Jager explained, so his joy came as no surprise. Smith’s, though, was a departure. “It was nice to see Mario go across like that and get all emotional,” De Jager said.
With Manyonga’s gold in hand, there was no question: The long-legged boy from Mbekweni was causing a stir in the track world. His future, personally and professionally, was wide open.
McGrath knew what it was like to use sports as an escape from a troubled childhood. In the 1970s, he grew up in a working-class family of six—mother, father, and four boys—not far from the country towns of Tallow and Cappoquin in County Waterford, Ireland. Home life was tough; McGrath’s dad had an unpredictable temper. His mother, who worked as a confectioner, was softer. McGrath sometimes picked blackberries that she baked into pies and wedding cakes.
He and his brothers played rugby and hurling, an Irish game similar to field hockey. After school they earned money harvesting onions or doing other odd jobs. McGrath put the money aside for his first bike, a red and white Raleigh with a fancy white seat. When he came up short on a down payment, his father, who could be generous when he wasn’t angry at his sons, made up the difference. McGrath rode it in ever wider circles around the house each day, venturing as far as he could before he had to turn around and head home for dinner.
One summer afternoon in the late 1970s, while learning to swim in a municipal pool, McGrath was approached by several members of a local rowing club running a recruitment drive. Would he like to join? His face dripping wet, McGrath looked up from the pool and asked when and where he was wanted.
Rowing provided an even greater escape than McGrath’s one-speed Raleigh. Soon his younger brother Oisin joined the club, too, and they traveled to Limerick, Cork, and Dublin for regattas. McGrath wasn’t a fluid rower, but he was powerful, a dynamo with the oars. He discovered that he loved the calm of the Blackwater, a gloriously wide tidal river next to the club’s boathouses. He could lose himself in the steady rhythm of pulling the oars and the labor exerted by his legs and lower back.
Over a decade of competition, with calm deliberation, he and Oisin powered past some of the best rowers in Ireland. In 1992, they competed on a four-man team in a qualifier for the Barcelona Olympics, breaking the course record by five seconds—only to have a Cuban team break it by six, dashing the McGraths’ hopes of advancing to Spain. “That race was the greatest of my life,” McGrath said. “I’ll never forget the exhaustion of coming in second.”
Not long after the head-to-head battle with the Cubans, disaster struck: McGrath was exercising when he felt a sudden sharp pain in his back. It was a prolapsed disc. Rowing became impossible, and within a year, he’d drifted away from the sport entirely. He took up martial arts like kickboxing and hapkido, among other disciplines that didn’t make heavy demands on his back. He grew fascinated by strength and conditioning, how it could help athletes of all skill levels. In 2002, he became the strength and conditioning coach for Mount Sion, a hurling team in Waterford.
The same year, McGrath picked up a hardback copy of a book called The Mighty Atom, by Ed Spielman. It tells the story of Joseph L. Greenstein, born premature and asthmatic as Yosselle Greenstein in the Polish border town of Suwalki in 1893. Doctors predicted that he would die before adulthood, but he survived and, of all things, joined the circus. Despite his diminutive size, Greenstein apprenticed with a wrestler and strongman called Volkano. In 1911, he came to the United States, where he reinvented himself as the Mighty Atom. Greenstein performed at Coney Island, slamming nails into plywood with his palm and flexing his pectoral, trapezius, and other bulging upper-body muscles to break the links of metal chains crisscrossing his chest. “The Modern Hercules,” a promotional poster for the Mighty Atom declared.
McGrath identified with Greenstein’s restlessness and self-sufficiency. He also shared the Mighty Atom’s views on the benefits of vegetarianism and avoiding alcohol. “No doubt about it,” McGrath told me. “The Spielman book changed my life.” In his free time, McGrath read about the lost tradition of Irish strongmen—performers and itinerants like Michael “Butty” Sugrue—and started training to bend horseshoes and tear telephone directories in half with his bare hands.
By 2008, McGrath had met a woman named Elke who was originally from South Africa. They lived on a farm outside Waterford called Bawnfune House, complete with prefamine sheds amid rolling green fields. Then the Irish economy fell off a cliff: Property values declined by more than 60 percent, and interest rates skyrocketed. Suddenly, McGrath couldn’t pay his mortgage. The bank took the farm. “I was in a horrible corner,” McGrath recalled.
Amid the mayhem of the crash, Elke announced that she wanted to return home to Paarl. McGrath followed, partly out of a lazy sense of adventure, and partly because he had few other options. He flew to South Africa with some clothes, two rolled-up paintings by a favorite Waterford artist, and two hurling balls, called sliotars, from his days training the lads at Mount Sion.
McGrath found Paarl alien. He didn’t understand a word of Afrikaans. He stood out as a tall, bulky foreigner with a funny accent. He longed for the fish and chips shop near the Mount Sion grounds and the grassy islands that run down the middle of Irish country roads. But he did his best to make a go of it. He picked up odd jobs performing vaudevillian feats of strength in school gymnasiums or delivering motivational speeches about the power of dreams and positive thinking. “I love the performance aspect of it,” he said of being a strongman. “But finally, it’s only a tool to prove to others that anything is possible. Bending paradigms is more important than breaking chains.” He coached two local rugby teams and helped some fellow enthusiasts build a Marine-like outdoor obstacle course called Die Pyntuin (the Garden of Pain).
None of it paid well, though. He and Elke began to grate on each other’s nerves. They fought, blamed each other for fighting, then fought some more. They soon separated.
McGrath scraped the money together to rent an empty warehouse on the industrial side of town; he wanted to open a strength and conditioning gym. The building was dark, drafty, and worn around the edges, but it was his. Bit by bit, McGrath attracted clients. The national women’s tug-of-war team was his first big get, and their medal at the World Games boosted his credentials. He was still in an existential breach, but he was determined to claw his way out.
In some ways, it was success that led to Manyonga’s downfall. Although he received no prize money to go with his gold medal at the junior worlds, sponsors began reaching out. Adidas paid for his kit, training shoes, and spikes, and he received a small stipend from Sascoc. In local terms, he was rapidly becoming a meneer (big man).
Smith persuaded Manyonga to live in a communal athletes’ house in Stellenbosch to focus more on his training. Doing so would mean dropping out of school before receiving his qualification—the South African equivalent of a high school diploma—but Manyonga didn’t mind. “At that time, Luvo, he was just flying,” Vuyiseka told me.
Manyonga shared the house with four other track and field athletes. He had his own room and a little privacy, two things he’d rarely experienced in Mbekweni. The five housemates spent weekends hanging out, eating Smith’s decadent homemade pasta dishes. But during the week they trained hard. Manyonga made steady gains in strength and technical acumen. Before long, Smith felt that Manyonga was ready to jump against anyone in the world.
Athletics South Africa, the country’s governing body for track and field, entered Manyonga in the long jump at the World Athletics Championships in South Korea. Though he placed fifth, he earned a $5,000 check, almost as much as the average annual income for black South Africans. Upon his return home, Manyonga, who was 20, set out to impress. He bought new clothes and attracted a group of friends who were happy to let him pick up the tab whenever they went out for meals or drinks. He disappeared from the training house for days at a time and stayed out all night at clubs in Mbekweni and Kyamandi, a township outside Stellenbosch.
Many people in these clubs used crystal meth, which had started flooding into South Africa from Nigeria in the late 1990s and was soon produced locally. One morning, after a night of partying, Manyonga woke considerably worse for wear. He pulled on jeans, splashed water on his face, and headed to Kyamandi. He had heard from a friend that tik, the local name for meth, was a cheap cure for a hangover, and he thought he could find someone dealing in the township.
Smith called to ask why he was late for training. Manyonga hung up.
Manyonga bought a small baggie of meth that day. When he smoked it, he heard a tik-tik-tik as he inhaled the heated lolly, or pipe; the sound was the source of the drug’s name. He loved how meth made him feel. The sensation of being high was nearly as good as jumping, he would later tell me. He didn’t have to worry about Smith pushing him, shouting at him to do better during training. He didn’t have to worry about fitting in at the athletes’ house as a township boy who hadn’t completed his exams. He didn’t have to worry about pressure or expectations or anything else. For a few hours, he didn’t have to think at all.
Soon the other athletes at the house noticed that personal items were disappearing. Money went missing from a wallet; cell phones mysteriously vanished like socks in the dryer. His housemates suspected Manyonga was taking things of value that he could trade for drugs. As they were cooling down after a training session without Manyonga one day, they brought the subject up with Smith. The conversation was amiable enough, but the young men felt that their coach didn’t take what they’d said to heart. “It felt like Mario didn’t want to see what we were seeing,” De Jager said. Still, Smith recommended that Manyonga visit a Stellenbosch-based sports psychologist named Dawn Saunders. “It was my impression that Mario sensed something wasn’t right,” Saunders told me. “It was almost as if he wanted me to confirm his suspicions.”
Busy with his new social life, Manyonga cut back on training, but he continued to compete and even to excel, a matter of enduring frustration to his less talented housemates. Though he underwent random drug testing before some meets, Manyonga didn’t get caught. Tik is detectable in a person’s system for only about nine days after use, and Manyonga would abstain from smoking just long enough to avoid testing positive.
On March 20, 2012, less than five months before the London Olympics, there was a meet scheduled at Coetzenburg Stadium, Manyonga’s home turf. He hadn’t planned to compete, so he’d snuck out of the house the day before to smoke a tik pipe in Kyamandi. Irritable with Manyonga’s wanderings, Smith decided to force the long jumper to participate, no matter how tired or unprepared he was. “Mario was pissed off,” said De Jager. “He put pressure on Luvo to compete. He always knew that if Luvo just hit the plank, the chances were good that he’d put in a good jump.”
Following the meet, a mere 24 hours after smoking tik, he was selected for a drug test. When it came back positive, Manyonga was immediately prohibited from further competition pending a hearing before the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAIDS), scheduled for a month later. Depending on what the panel decided, Manyonga faced a ban of up to two years.
Manyonga was devastated, and Smith was irate—at his star jumper but also, in De Jager’s telling, at himself. Smith insisted that Manyonga voluntarily enter an outpatient rehab center near Cape Town, in the suburb of Hout Bay. For several weeks, Manyonga spent his days at the rehab center, going through counseling and working on strategies to avoid a relapse. When he next visited Saunders, “he was upset and disappointed,” she recalled. He also “didn’t deny anything.” During their talk, Manyonga was deferential and apologetic, less a meneer than a frightened kid, scarcely out of adolescence. Jumping had been his source of power and his escape. If he couldn’t jump, what would he do?
When Manyonga was scheduled to appear in the suburban Cape Town offices of SAIDS, Smith went with him, and the coach asked Saunders to come, too. The London Olympics were less than three months away. Saunders, like Smith, felt strongly that Manyonga was a young man from difficult circumstances who’d made a mistake; she understood how rare his talent was, how limited his support system, and how easy it must have been to get caught up in the culture of tik. As they prepared to enter the SAIDS offices, Saunders asked Manyonga how he was feeling.
“Mum can’t be proud of me now,” she remembered him saying. “I’ve brought shame on my family.”
At the hearing, Manyonga, Saunders, and Smith sat on one side of a large boardroom table; on the other was a panel of four administrators and lawyers (three of them white, one Malay) who would decide his fate. Manyonga accepted strict liability—he didn’t dispute that he’d tested positive—but otherwise spoke little. Saunders and Smith did most of the talking.
Saunders described the long jumper’s background, his dysfunctional home life, and the rigors of Mbekweni. Manyonga had shown contrition, Smith added, and voluntarily sought out treatment. His mother earned 120 Rand (roughly $9) per week as a domestic worker; his dad rarely had work. If Manyonga didn’t jump, he would have no income, and his family would lose his financial support, too. He needed only one more jump to qualify for the Olympics.
Some of the panelists teared up or blew their noses. “So you believe, Mr. Smith,” asked Andrew Breetzke, the chairman, “the athlete has the potential to become one of the world’s great long jumpers?”
“I do,” Smith replied. “He’s my most gifted athlete. He can hurdle parked cars.”
After approximately three hours, the meeting was adjourned. The panel would deliver a verdict within two weeks. The mood during the car ride home was somber. Smith drove and Saunders sat in the front; Manyonga was in the back seat. Saunders heard sniffling coming from behind her at one point but didn’t turn around.
As they rolled down the N2 highway toward Stellenbosch, Saunders noticed the shanties of Khayelitsha, the largest township in South Africa. She had seen it many times before, but the sight now shamed her. The lingering divisions of apartheid, between the haves and have-nots, was as much a part of the South African landscape as the breathtaking silhouette of Table Mountain and the fields of grazing rhinos in Kruger National Park. And just like the townships, Manyonga personified the raw injustices of his country.
Saunders started to cry. She looked across the car and saw that Smith was crying, too. “What a bugger up it was,” she told me. “I don’t know if another nation can understand this—that this is what it means to be a South African.”
Two weeks later, the verdict arrived: Manyonga was banned from jumping for 18 months. The mitigating factors of his background and home life meant that he didn’t receive the maximum two-year sanction. Breetzke told me that he felt bad about the whole situation—a “quintessential South African tragedy,” he said—but rules were rules.
Over the next year, Manyonga disappeared from Smith’s radar. He bounced around Mbekweni, from club to club, aimless, often high—until the day he met John McGrath.
At 10 a.m., the time they’d agreed to meet to begin training, McGrath pulled up in his Jeep at Manyonga’s Machule Street home, vacillating between hope and doubt that the young man would even be there. To McGrath’s relief he was, though he’d ditched his Panama hat for a black tracksuit. McGrath got out of the Jeep, and he and Manyonga bumped fists and snapped their fingers in greeting. Then they both got in the car and headed to the gym.
To start, McGrath wanted to establish a baseline for Manyonga’s natural gifts. He had the young man hold a broom across the front of his thighs, the handle horizontal to the ground. He asked Manyonga to jump over it from a standing position, then, with the handle pressed to his hamstrings, to jump over it backward. The exercise was nearly impossible; McGrath had seen it done successfully only a few times in his career as a coach. Manyonga did it ten times in a row.
Still, there was room for improvement. Manyonga was naturally supple, but he wasn’t nearly as strong as he could be. A long jumper needs the explosive power of a sprinter to fly down the runway and maximize his launch. Manyonga could run 100 meters in 10.5 seconds; McGrath told Manyonga he could get that number down to 10 if he wanted to. The young athlete also needed better stability in his ankles, so he could withstand the bone-jarring force of his takeoff without injury.
McGrath concentrated on exercises that would strengthen Manyonga’s core and thighs without sacrificing his natural speed and agility. Manyonga rode a stationary bike. He worked with weights and medicine balls. He did one-legged jumps onto raised blocks. Days turned into weeks, weeks wheeled into months, and Manyonga became stronger and fitter.
Sometimes they were joined in training by Ryk Neethling, a freestyle swimmer who had won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics as part of South Africa’s 4x100-meter relay team. The three men quickly established a rapport. They were relentlessly competitive, challenging each other to acts of strength and endurance. Manyonga was easily bored, so they devised games to keep things interesting. Sometimes they’d race around the facility’s perimeter, pushing wheelbarrows full of weights as fast as they could. “Somehow,” McGrath recalled fondly of the competitions, “Ryk would always start before I said go.”
As Manyonga put on muscle, McGrath did, too. Within a few months, he realized that he had never been in better shape and that he was having more fun than he’d had in years. After workouts during which they blasted songs by Lil Ray Jimenez, McGrath and Manyonga would go to Paarl for coffee or a shake and a burger. They were an unusual pair: McGrath was the pale white of the sun-shy Irish, while Manyonga was a lustrous black. McGrath was like a brick wall of solid muscle, while Manyonga was narrow and agile. He walked on his toes, not the soles of his feet, giving the impression that he was always about to take flight. They joked with each other and talked about women and music. Manyonga loved R&B and a South African genre called gqom, which mixes rap and house music. McGrath’s tastes inclined toward heavy metal, Irish folk, and the Ramones. “We were very equal,” McGrath recalled of their relationship. “I talked about Ireland and the Irish weather. He talked about going swimming in the dams behind Mbekweni.”
As they became closer, there was one subject that Manyonga didn’t seem comfortable discussing: his relationship with Mario Smith. From the little Manyonga said, and from what McGrath heard from other athletes, it was clear that the coach-athlete bond had become a strained one.
McGrath’s and Smith’s paths seldom crossed—they moved in different athletic worlds—but he empathized with Smith, because he had frustrations of his own with Manyonga. Sometimes the long jumper skipped training sessions and would be unreachable because he’d sold his most recent cell phone. Things went missing from the gym, like a mountain bike and thumb drives of music. While McGrath didn’t have proof that Manyonga was to blame, he’d also never lost things like that before. McGrath let it go. “Some battles you fight,” he told me. “We were in a delicate phase. I suspected that he was still smoking tik but looked the other way. I couldn’t be with him every hour of the day, and I didn’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole.”
McGrath knew that Manyonga needed Smith’s expertise on the technical aspects of jumping to compete again, so when Manyonga’s ban expired, in September 2013, the Irishman arranged a three-way meeting at Val-de-Vie, a luxury golf estate where Ryk Neethling worked when he wasn’t swimming. The gathering, McGrath announced after they’d all sat down, was about leaving the past behind and finding common ground. “I made it quite clear,” McGrath said, “that no one person would help improve Luvo—it was going to be a joint effort.” They agreed to put the ban behind them and set their sights on the Commonwealth Games, scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in July 2014. It was the ideal venue for Manyonga to return to international competition: high-profile but not exceptionally so.
To get there, the trio established a daily protocol. Manyonga would train with McGrath in Paarl in the morning, then with Smith in Stellenbosch in the afternoon, before returning to Mbekweni at night. Smith would either pick him up or see to it that a car came to fetch him. The routine would give Manyonga structure and support at every turn, along with a new goal to replace his dashed London dreams. Whatever bad habits the young man still had, Smith and McGrath hoped to keep them at manageable levels.
The coaches decided that Manyonga would compete at a meet in Coetzenburg Stadium in March 2014, just two days before the cutoff date to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. Manyonga wasn’t quite in peak shape, but Smith and McGrath hoped he would qualify with one of his early jumps, before he got too tired. He reached 7.65 meters on his second attempt, more than enough to make it to Glasgow.
But there was a hitch: Afterward, Athletics South Africa claimed that the jump was never reported and therefore couldn’t be ratified—meaning that Manyonga hadn’t officially qualified. When Sascoc announced South Africa’s Glasgow team on June 11, 2014, Manyonga wasn’t on it. All his hard work had been wasted effort. His official ban had ended nine months prior, but now it seemed to have been informally extended.
According to McGrath, Manyonga took the news in stride. “I was more freaked out than Luvo was,” McGrath told me. Perhaps, he mused, Manyonga had already “had to take so much shit” in his life as a poor black man in South Africa that this felt like business as usual. Then again, Manyonga wasn’t one to be open and honest about his feelings. Playing tough was an act of youth and a product of circumstance.
One night, two weeks after Sascoc’s announcement about Glasgow, Smith was driving from Stellenbosch to Paarl in his battered Opel Kadett when an oncoming car came over a rise and hit him head-on. Both vehicles immediately burst into flames, killing Smith and the other car’s four occupants.
The news spread quickly, and the athletes Smith had worked with most committedly took it hard, like the loss of the family member who’d been the glue holding everyone together. “We had a really good training group,” De Jager said. “The fact that Mario died broke us apart.”
Manyonga had known Smith for five years. The coach had given him a shot—twice—and been a father figure. Even during the painful months of the ban and the distance it had created between them, he’d loved the man.
After the accident, Manyonga drifted back to Mbekweni. When he and McGrath saw each other or spoke, Smith’s death wasn’t mentioned. “Luvo didn’t reveal too much of his pain to me,” McGrath said.
On the day of Smith’s memorial, Manyonga put on slim-fitting red pants, a crisp shirt, and pointed black loafers. He left his family’s home intending to catch the train to Stellenbosch, where the service would be held. But he got waylaid: He ran into some friends, smoked a tik pipe, and never caught the train.
The day of Smith’s funeral was when I met McGrath and Manyonga for the first time, though it wasn’t an easy undertaking. On a work trip to the Western Cape, I’d heard about an Irishman who’d befriended a long jumper with talent to burn, now ostracized from the South African track community because he used drugs. My interest piqued, I’d contacted McGrath, who explained Manyonga’s tendency to disappear. On the day of the memorial, we chased him for five hours: An acquaintance on the street said they’d seen him an hour or so prior and pointed us to one of Manyonga’s haunts, where the scenario repeated itself, before we finally found him at the train station.
Exhausted—and irritated—by the search, we went looking for something to eat and somewhere to talk. I learned much about Luvo that day: the purity of his potential, the depth of his relationship with McGrath, and the intensity of his love of tik, which he described to me with rapt attention to detail. He also talked about his drive to succeed. “I want to be someone in life,” Manyonga told me, “not a hero or a millionaire. I want to be a normal person with a family, a person people look up to and say, ‘One day, I want to be just like him.’”
The product of my reporting was an article, “The Impossibility of Loving Luvo,” published in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian in August 2014. The wheels that the story set in motion were slow but powerful. The African National Congress, the country’s governing party, reached out to its Mbekweni branch, and Manyonga and McGrath were invited to a parliamentary meeting in Cape Town. The two men explained the long jumper’s predicament. The lawmakers said that while they couldn’t make any decisions about Manyonga’s fate, they would call people who could.
Within a few weeks, McGrath’s phone was ringing. Sascoc was interested in Manyonga again. The committee offered to enroll him at the High Performance Centre (HPC) at the University of Pretoria, better known as Tukkies. The HPC was the best athletic center in the country.
On the heels of Smith’s death, McGrath felt it was the right move for Manyonga. “Never,” he told me, “have I seen someone as straightforwardly gifted as Luvo.” McGrath didn’t want the young man to pass up a chance to get his talent back on track.
In June 2015, a year after Smith’s accident, Manyonga moved to Pretoria to train. He wasn’t thrilled about the HPC’s insistence that he submit to random drug testing, but he was glad when, one sunny winter morning not long after he’d arrived, he met someone eager to be his new coach: Neil Cornelius, a trainer at the HPC. “I knew of his troubles and his past,” Cornelius told me, but “there was never any doubt” that with work, Manyonga could “break barriers.”
Not that Cornelius liked everything he saw. Manyonga still walked and ran on his toes and needed to get out of the habit during his jumps, Cornelius told him, because placing a full foot on the ground would give him a firmer takeoff. Manyonga also admitted to his coach that, because he was scared of heights, he closed his eyes after launching into the air. Cornelius urged Manyonga to keep them open. “I told him that if you close your eyes, you are losing control and direction,” Cornelius explained. “If you don’t have visual feedback, you don’t know where you are going.”
Under Cornelius’s tutelage, Manyonga gained in confidence and strength. His technique became more precise and his jumps progressively longer. With dedication, on the right stage, he could possibly break American Mike Powell’s world record of 8.95 meters, set at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.
McGrath was nearly 800 miles away in Paarl, but he tried to visit Manyonga regularly. When he flew up from Cape Town for work, he would arrange his schedule to spend at least half a day with his friend. They would meet and shoot the breeze over a cappuccino or a meal. “Luvo had a fierce appetite, that I can tell you—he’d have mighty breakfasts,” McGrath recalled, “and a good conversation with the waitress as well.” They went to rugby matches and, once, to watch a motocross race. “That was probably the last uncomplicated visit we ever had,” McGrath said.
The complications didn’t stem from an argument or disagreement, which McGrath and Manyonga rarely had in earnest. The problems were subtler and more frustrating. Manyonga moving to Pretoria, far from the trauma he’d endured and the mistakes he’d made, created a rift between the life he’d lived and the one he wanted to build. McGrath sat on the far side of that divide, a reminder of a past self that Manyonga wanted to shed like old skin. He was young, gifted, and impetuous. His friendship with McGrath seemed better set aside with a gentle hand than dragged along with him into the future.
When I spoke to McGrath on the phone, I asked if he felt hurt by the growing distance between him and Manyonga, but he insisted that nothing was wrong. “This was how it was meant to be,” he’d once said of Manyonga’s move to Pretoria. In another conversation, he noted, “My motive was always to get him on his feet and get him going again.” On another occasion, McGrath added, “I was always gunning for him to get away. I was never going to carry his suitcase around the world.”
In March 2016, Manyonga’s rehabilitation reached a critical moment. At a low-key meet at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria, he jumped 8.2 meters. The distance guaranteed that, after years of hardship and uncertainty, Manyonga was finally able to go to the Olympic Games for his country. McGrath wasn’t at the meet, but when he heard about Manyonga’s victory, he texted his friend, “Show the swagger.”
A month later, Manyonga was set to appear at the South African Athletics Championships. It was the country’s biggest stage, and Manyonga hoped to wow audiences with further evidence of his comeback. McGrath and Manyonga’s family were in the stands at Coetzenburg Stadium. Manyonga had jumped there hundreds of times before; it felt like a spiritual home. Cornelius whispered in Manyonga’s ear that he was on the cusp of becoming a legend in front of the entire country.
Manyonga’s first two jumps in the qualifying round were massive, but officials deemed them foul, meaning Manyonga’s toe had passed the edge of the takeoff plate. His third attempt was an utter failure: a negligible 6.7 meters. Manyonga didn’t advance to the final round and ultimately finished 13th. A victory might have established Manyonga as a favorite at Rio. Instead, he would be entering sports’ biggest stage as an inconsistent underdog.
When it was all over, Cornelius took the athlete aside.
“This is the last time this happens,” he growled. “The last time.”
“Yes, coach,” Manyonga replied, looking at his feet.
“Time is running out, Luvo,” Cornelius said. “Carry on like this, and medaling at Rio is just a dream. You with me?”
“I am, yes. It won’t happen again.”
McGrath was nursing a secret. He was injured, badly, and had been for months. At first, in 2015, he thought the pain running like a hot wire down his left leg was a pulled muscle, but he soon realized that it was the recurrence of his 25-year-old rowing injury, which affected his fourth and fifth vertebrae. “It robs you of joy, an injury like that,” McGrath told me. “It was hell to sit and difficult to walk. The only thing that really helped was to lie down.” He felt alone; he’d been separated from Elke for years, and while he had clients at the gym, none gave him purpose like Manyonga had. Friends told him that he should consider moving back to Ireland.
Instead, McGrath focused on the thing that had pulled him through other dark times: training. He had a bag full of grip exercisers called Captains of Crush. He could use them to maintain the strength in his wrists and forearms without compromising his damaged back. He started with a relatively easy gripper, equipped with 140 pounds of resistance, and worked his way up to 300. He squeezed the devices for an hour each day, swapping hands and pausing occasionally to rest his aching arms. It was a solitary activity, physical meditation of sorts. As he clamped the handles of the grippers together again and again, his mind meandered into daydreams. “That’s where I conjure up the feats that I’m going to do,” McGrath told me.
Sometimes he imagined performing in front of the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen, an international group dedicated to preserving the tradition that had made the Mighty Atom famous. McGrath had appeared before the association once before, in 2011 in Coney Island, where he’d done two tricks. The first was a complicated maneuver in which he bent a steel bar into a curlicue; the second involved bending a bar by clamping the middle between his teeth and pulling the ends downward. But he wanted to do more, including bend nails. The feat held a certain cachet in strongman circles. The Mighty Atom had done it. The Atom’s most ardent disciple, Slim “the Hammerman” Furman, had too. Because of their short length and the bender’s diminished leverage, nails are more difficult than steel bars. Among the most challenging to manipulate are what are known as red nails: seven inches of steel, five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, that have been cold rolled, or processed at lower temperatures to make them stronger than standard nails.
In early 2016, after months of minimal exercise beyond just gripping the Captains of Crush, McGrath grew impatient and decided to push himself. He picked up a steel bar one day and tried to bend it. Immediately, pain coursed through his back. He was nearly incapacitated. He took anti-inflammatories and other painkillers, but nothing helped. Around the same time Manyonga headed to Rio, McGrath finally admitted that he needed surgery. It was the only way to relieve pressure on a nerve near his spine.
The operation went smoothly, but as he recovered, McGrath’s doctors gave him some news he didn’t want to hear: He should never again bend a steel bar, let alone a nail. McGrath let their advice sink in as, lying on his back, he watched the Rio Olympics unfold on television. He was pumped so full of narcotics that he could barely muster the strength to shout when Manyonga appeared on screen, clad in his green, yellow, and white uniform, ready to jump.
Despite Manyonga’s lackluster performance at Coetzenburg, McGrath believed Manyonga could medal in Rio; so did Cornelius. But the rest of the sports world had lost sight of the promising South African during what amounted to a nearly five-year hiatus from high-profile competition. Manyonga quietly took fourth in the qualifying round and advanced. “Excited for tomorrow,” Cornelius texted him that night. “Sleep well.”
The long-jump final began at midnight in South Africa, where Manyonga’s family watched via a satellite feed their neighbors had pooled their money to purchase for the family. McGrath watched from a friend’s house where he was staying while recovering from surgery. As the competitors took the field, commentators described the fight for gold as a two-way race between Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford and America’s Jeff Henderson. When TV cameras focused on Manyonga, he did a buzzy little jig, his natural showmanship coming to the fore.
Rutherford went first and jumped 8.18 meters. Manyonga then hit 8.16. Henderson followed with 8.2. Manyonga’s next two jumps were ruled foul. Rutherford, meanwhile, moved ahead of Henderson with a jump of 8.22.
When it was time for his fourth attempt, Manyonga stood on the track, his eyes focused on the pit ahead. He leaned back, then sprinted and leaped into the air. When he landed, the number that flashed on the scoreboard was the best of the night: 8.28 meters. In his fifth jump he would surpass it, reaching 8.37 meters, a personal record in competition.
Manyonga strutted toward the stands, his face breaking into a grin. On Machule Street, people screamed at the television and clapped their hands. McGrath, feeling a surge of pride even as he was unable to react with a physically taxing whoop or fist pump, was sure that the event was over. No one would beat Manyonga.
Henderson had one jump left, and Manyonga watched from the side of the track, where he sat on the ground, leaning back on his arms as casually as if he was at a picnic. Henderson rocketed toward the pit and soared into the air.
He hit 8.38 meters. Just like that, Manyonga was bumped from first place.
“I was so close,” he sighed to reporters afterward. “I had my hands on that gold medal.” Still, he’d won an Olympic silver medal, a feat that, just a year prior, had seemed all but impossible.
McGrath had once predicted that either Luvo would be dead from an overdose or he’d be standing on an Olympic podium by the time he was 30. At 25, Manyonga had fulfilled that prophecy. The Irishman shared the news on Twitter, posted a Facebook message, and sent Manyonga his congratulations. As the hours passed, his emotions mounted. “I stayed awake all night, and at around 5 a.m., it dawned on me what an achievement this was,” McGrath told me. He broke down crying.
Many people in South Africa had been sure that Manyonga would never live up to his potential. The long jumper had proved them wrong. McGrath wanted to do the same to the doctors who’d told him he’d never be a strongman again.
After leaving the hospital, he’d worn a back brace and used crutches. Once he ditched those, he embraced Pilates and yoga. He went to physical therapy and changed his diet, incorporating intermittent fasting like the Mighty Atom once had. Slowly, he began to exercise more rigorously. “I went by feel and trained around my injury,” he told me. “I did push-ups, pull-ups. I always took a safe position. I never picked up anything off the floor.”
Six weeks after surgery, he had the chance to do a paid strength performance for Adidas employees gathered at a Stellenbosch hotel. He couldn’t bend a bar by traditional means, so he bent one while holding it clamped between his teeth. He leaned his head back, raising his jaw toward the sky, while yanking down on either end of the three-foot length of steel. “Something must give in a situation like that—generally it’s the bar,” McGrath told me with a chuckle. “Your teeth crushing down into your gums feels wrong. It’s counterintuitive. The taste of steel isn’t particularly pleasant.” The performance went off without a hitch and with minimal pain.
In addition to a much needed paycheck, the event gave McGrath confidence. The Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen was having its annual dinner in Newark, New Jersey, in October 2017. If McGrath trained hard in the year leading up to the event, he might be able to set a world record for the most red nails bent in under a minute. “Those nails are strengthened by a process that gives them approximately 500 pounds of resistance,” McGrath told me. “You’re not going to do more than seven or eight in a minute.” That became his goal.
Reaching it required a change of technique. He couldn’t bow his back to the same degree he once had, which meant he couldn’t manipulate a nail while holding it down in front of his torso. Instead, he’d have to bring it up close to his chin and bend it in half with a relatively straight back, providing the necessary explosive power with his shoulders, biceps, and forearms. All of his training was geared toward strengthening his upper body.
One day while McGrath was training, Pastor Eugene Maqwelana, the man who’d first introduced the Irishman to Manyonga, phoned. He was planning a men’s retreat in Paarl and inviting community leaders. The coaches of a rugby team would be there, and Maqwelana wanted Manyonga to come, too. Could McGrath persuade him to fly down from Pretoria?
McGrath called Manyonga, who agreed to come, though their conversation took a strange turn.
“I’m next-level now, John,” Manyonga said. “I need a bodyguard.”
“You what?” McGrath replied incredulously.
“A bodyguard, you know.”
McGrath thought Manyonga might be joking, playing up an above-it-all celebrity persona for laughs. But Manyonga’s tone suggested he was serious.
“You’re a fucking athlete,” McGrath replied, annoyed, “not Jay-Z.”
The strongman picked the long jumper up after his flight down south for the retreat. Following the event, they went to Bean-in-Love, a favorite coffee shop from their time training together at the gym. Back then they were just two friends stopping in for a snack; now everyone in the neighborhood knew Manyonga. “Walking back in there was kind of cool,” McGrath said. “There was a sense of achievement.”
But tension was palpable in what wasn’t said. The two men ignored the bodyguard conversation and its implications—namely, that the gulf between them was wider than ever.
Away from the streets of Mbekweni, Manyonga still struggled to cope with temptation. As he trained for the 2017 World Athletics Championships, scheduled for London in August, he was lured into the drug scene in Sunnyside, a Pretoria suburb. He went on a bender in July and voluntarily committed himself to rehab. “He was so weak he couldn’t jump,” said Danie Cornelius, who runs the track and field program at the University of Pretoria (and is also the father of Manyonga’s coach, Neil). While there, Cornelius said, Manyonga tested positive for cocaine. The staff kicked him out, but he was readmitted after authorities at the University of Pretoria pleaded for the center to take him back.
With three weeks to go before the worlds, Manyonga’s entourage was wild with worry. From afar, McGrath was aware of the troubles, but he was reluctant to interfere. When Manyonga arrived in London, his closest supporters held their breath, hoping his raw talent would overcome his recklessness. The young man exceeded even the most optimistic expectations: Sporting a pair of pale blue spikes, Manyonga jumped a whopping 8.48 meters early in the final round, literally drawing a line in the sand. No one else could match the effort. He was champion of the world.
After his victory, he called his family. “We cried a lot,” Vuyiseka said. “Mum was very happy.”
By that time, Manyonga had begun working with a new sports agent, a man named Lee-Roy Newton, who made it clear to reporters that he was going to rewrite Manyonga’s public narrative. He told The Guardian that sponsors didn’t want to go near stories with lingering negativity—stories like a sports figure who had struggled with a drug problem. (Newton did not respond to a request for comment about Manyonga’s 2017 experience in rehab.)
For McGrath’s part, he felt that Newton drove an even deeper wedge between him and Manyonga, a sense borne out when, while working on this story, I called Newton to set up an interview with Manyonga about his relationship with John. I wondered, however naively, if I might be able to help bridge the gap between the long jumper and the strongman. Newton told me that Manyonga didn’t want to talk; Manyonga thought McGrath was trying to take credit for his success and didn’t want to have anything to do with a story linking their journeys together.
It was a response that, to a certain degree, I understood. In South Africa, people who come from little are rightly protective of their success; others taking credit can feel like robbery of the worst kind. And people who offer a helping hand too often forget or gloss over the conditions that made assistance necessary in the first place. If Manyonga, blessed with innate physical brilliance, wanted to move through the world like a kid with diamonds on the soles of his shoes, that was his right.
Then again, McGrath seemed less interested in credit than he did in connection. Even as Manyonga continued to win meet after meet and title after title around the globe, McGrath kept visiting the young man’s family. He helped Vuyiseka pay for outstanding school fees and sometimes pitched in for groceries or the odd bottle of wine. “We lost Mario,” Vuyiseka told me, “and then came John.”
At root the story of McGrath and Manyonga isn’t one of debts owed. It’s about two people from diverging worlds pushing the limits of what’s personally and humanly possible, who for a brief but glorious time labored side by side in that effort. They were changed by it. Then, as quickly as they’d met, they burst apart, burning bright in different directions, but with a single contrail in their wake.
On October 21, 2017, after months of preparation and planning, McGrath took to a small, wobbly stage in a conference room at the Marriott Hotel in Newark, New Jersey. It was a Saturday afternoon, and golden leaves were falling from the trees outside. The audience was small, no more than 50 or 60 people, devotees of the sport that strongmen like to call the Iron Game.
The room was better suited to a dentists’ convention or a gathering of financial brokers. The carpet muffled sound, the wallpaper was tasteful, and the light fittings were demure. Even the doors seemed to close with a plush murmur. It was not a place for the savage grunts of bar-bending men, yet there they were, grunting away.
Throughout the afternoon, men in leather waistcoats and boots stepped forward to bend steel. Others forced rods into improbable shapes, full of curlicues and rococo flourishes, called iron butterflies. One man, Eric Moss, lay on his back between two chairs, a concrete paving slab balanced on his stomach. His partner climbed the rungs of a nearby ladder, a kettlebell in hand. Once he was sure of his balance, the partner dropped the weight onto the paving stone, which cracked with a thud. A plume of dust rose from the slab. Moss jumped up and blinked, to thunderous applause.
Next it was McGrath’s turn to bend red nails. He and a friend had been wrapping the tips of nails in blue Cordura for hours. Combined with chalk, the cladding helped his grip. Once McGrath was on stage, a 60-second stopwatch started and he was handed the first nail. He pulled it close to his chin and dealt with it easily. He was given a second nail, then a third. His technique was uniform: Stepping forward slightly, he’d seize the nail, and once it was solidly in his grip, he’d push and grimace with all his upper body’s might until the nail’s two ends nearly touched. Then he’d toss the narrow U-shaped piece of steel to the floor.
As he moved through nails four, five, and six, his pace slowed imperceptibly. By nail seven he was struggling, and there were only 20 seconds left on the clock. The audience took a collective breath as he made no initial impression on nail eight. Finally, with much effort, he managed to bend it. By the time the ninth nail was in his hands he was spent, his arms like jelly. McGrath had bent the last nail only partially. “Your power system is gone,” he told me later. “I thought I might have had time for another one, but I didn’t.”
After review, the result was seven nails fully bent; two didn’t make the cut because they weren’t the right shape. Still, it was one more nail than the previous world record. In the small universe of strongmen, McGrath was a victor.
It wasn’t quite the Olympics; there were no television cameras in the room, and I was the only reporter present. As McGrath gulped air and accepted compliments and backslaps from the audience, I couldn’t help but think of Manyonga. I wondered if McGrath was thinking about him, too. Did he want to tell his friend about what he’d achieved—how he, too, was a world champion after overcoming so much? Did it hurt to know that Manyonga might never learn about the scene at the Marriott?
I asked McGrath what went through his mind when he knew he’d set the world record. He didn’t answer immediately. In the radiating satisfaction of his achievement, he paused in thought. Finally, he said that he wouldn’t change anything about his journey at all.