“Look what’s written on the bottom,” says Charlie McGonigle, handing over a trophy and pointing to an inscription. “See it? They’ve written ‘Big C’!”
McGonigle throws his head back and roars with laughter. “Big C! That’s me! And Big C got the Big C!” he yells. “You couldnae make it up!”
It’s just one of the many moments in the 20-year-old Glaswegian’s company that confounds expectation.
He is eloquent and thoughtful, yet he was suspended from St Mark’s Primary and St Andrew’s Secondary in the city’s east end “loads of times”, a statement rather than a boast, as he now concedes he was “a cheeky wee…” You get the picture.
He spent a large part of his childhood in care, removed from his family at 10 over concerns about his poor diet and burgeoning weight. He was 15 stone at the age of 11.
Yet, for all that, McGonigle is extremely close to his mum. It was her who insisted he should continue going to the same school, which meant a 150-mile daily school run with his care workers from Dumfries.
The temptation might be to view him as having always been immobile, yet he was Scotland Under-16s’ tighthead prop before a horror tackle in a game against Wales ended his nascent career.
“Both my knees popped out,” he recalls. “The Scottish Rugby doctor told me I would never be able to run at the level they’d need me to. And that was that.”
Two years ago, a bout of fisticuffs led to a hospital visit. As his nose was being re-set, the doctor suggested he be tested for a growth on his neck. The diagnosis? Hodgkin lymphoma, stage two, meaning two or more lymph node groups were affected by the cancer, above or below the diaphragm.
The radiotherapy worked, though it resulted in hair loss and reduced his right-sided pectoral muscle by one-tenth of its mass. “They told me there’s an 80% chance the cancer will return,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ll beat it again then an’ all.”
‘Care homes made me who I am’
Care homes, injuries, cancer. But there’s something else about McGonigle – he’s a world champion powerlifter, a world-record holder to boot. And he retained his title only nine weeks after finishing his treatment at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre.
McGonigle’s winces at the violent reputation of his old stamping grounds of Tollcross and Parkhead, but thinks things have improved dramatically.
After years of care home and supported accommodation, he is now living independently or, as he puts it, “like a boss”. On his first night in his new house in Ruchazie, there was a shooting in his street. But all has been quiet since.
In a contradictory moment, standing on the grounds of his former primary school, he breaks off discussing his experiences in care to yell affectionately to his uncle.
There is no trace of bitterness with either the authorities or his family that he was taken in to care, moving from Glasgow to Stirlingshire, two homes in Dumfries & Galloway and finally supported accommodation in Nitshill on Glasgow’s south side.
“It’s made me who I am today,” he says. “I wouldnae swap it. I’m stronger for it. Me and my mum used to go shooting targets, the cinema, do endless stuff together. I could be with my family at any time.
“The care environment has its ups and downs. With Craigbrock and Blackburn [care homes], it’s a normal house but it’s not realistic. We’re failing young people because you’re giving them an unrealistic lifestyle and then they’re going to be in a flat themselves.
“I am lucky that I have family that I have really close bonds with who are around the corner from me, but there are other young people who have nobody.”
Negative vibes at the Devil’s Beef Tub
McGonigle rails against the perception of care homes being for “naughty people who have done something wrong”, claiming that the vast majority “are there because of things they couldn’t have helped”.
His favourite spot for contemplation when in care in Dumfries was the dramatic landscape of the Devil’s Beef Tub, just outside Moffat.
Novelist Sir Walter Scott described it as “a damned deep, black, blackguard-looking abyss of a hole” but for McGonigle it is “a magical place, absolutely beautiful”.
He says: “I could never find a place where I could just sit and listen to nothing and chill out. Then I was brought here by one of my staff members and I just love it. It makes you feel proud to be Scottish.
“I can sit on the grass on a warm summer’s day, or even when it’s snowing, and I can think about the things that need to be thought about – and the stuff that doesn’t.
“I just let it go. It was as if I was physically letting it go. The Devil’s Beef Tub is where I release my negative vibes.”
McGonigle found peace in this rural spot, but also found comfort in food. At 16, he weighed 32 stone. Far from easing his weight problems, he had doubled in size since going in to care.
“A lot of people say, ‘I have a problem with my weight’,” he says. “I just had a problem staying out the fridge. Food was like a hobby.”
Losing eight stone through bodybuilding
But his life changed, again, when a new manager arrived at his care home. Ian – or as he is better known, Joe – Kevan, was a former bodybuilder who had returned to work in the care sector.
“It’s not unusual for children in care, being away from family and friends, that whole comfort thing in food,” says Kevan. “His weight was really quite dangerous. The last thing I wanted was for it to impact on his health.”
Kevan told him about his career in bodybuilding and introduced him to weightlifting. McGonigle’s weight dropped between seven and eight stone.
He trained hard to master the demands of the deadlift, the squat and the bench press, powerlifting’s three disciplines. He recalls: “Joe said, ‘let’s change this, let’s get you in to something you like’.
“I got a personal trainer, nutritional tips, trained for eight months and won my first Scottish title. He started me off, he motivated me and my family backed that up.”
In 2017, he won the British Drug-Free Powerlifting Association title for 16-17 year olds, the “drug-free” referring to the federation’s strict rules forbidding performance-enhancing substances.
In the February of that year, he set new European records and in the November, in Rockland, Massachusetts, he became his federation’s T3 world champion, the category for 18-19 year olds.
On top of that, he set new world records for competitors weighing more than 145kg in each of the three disciplines.
‘I want to break the world record’
With life going well, he had the shock of the cancer diagnosis in the spring of 2018. His first bout of radiotherapy was over the summer and, incredibly, by late September his appetite had returned – but for competition rather than food.
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Before getting the all-clear in October, he decided he wanted to defend his world title and turned to the man he considers to be “the best powerlifting coach in Scotland” – Andy Cairney, who runs the Outcast Barbell Sanctuary in Clydebank.
McGonigle recalls: “I said to him, ‘I’ve got nine weeks to the World Championship. I need you to get me there.’ He said, ‘let’s go for it.'”
He became world champion once more.
McGonigle did not compete in 2019. He realised he had returned too quickly and suffered a spate of injuries, most notably sciatica and knee problems.
However, he has been signed by AMG Sports Management, a Scottish company making a name for itself in the world of martial arts and strongman promotions.
He is targeting competitions in Clydebank in April and at the Scottish Fitness Expo in October. He will compete as a junior until he is 23, at which point he will move into the senior ranks.
With a personal best in competition of 280kg, is he hoping to break the world junior deadlift record?
“I’m not hoping, I will,” he states. “The world record is 460 kilos. I’d like to beat it by at least two kilos, so 462-465 kilos by this time next year. And I aim to have beaten the 500 kilo record by the time I’m 25.”
That 500kg deadlift record set by Eddie Hall seems almost superhuman. McGonigle, though, is no ordinary young man.