Within weeks of starting his hospitality course at Oxford Polytechnic (which became Oxford Brookes University in 1992), Michael McGrath ’88 was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy. He has since gone on to become a charity leader, inspirational speaker and polar adventurer. Observe was delighted to catch up with him earlier this year.
“Babe, I’m here!” were Michael McGrath’s first words to his wife, Susie, when he phoned home – emotionally shredded and physically sick – from the South Pole in January 2004.
Reaching the ends of the Earth was not just the culmination of an intrepid adventure for Michael, the first ever person in the world with a disability to lead polar expeditions to both Poles (he reached the North Pole in April 2002), it was the start of a much greater mission. Michael’s hero, the great Irish polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton said, “superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results” and for Michael the success of his expeditions was not ‘where’ he went but ‘how’ he has subsequently used these remarkable experiences to enrich the lives of others.
It’s such a privilege to spend time with a family and create what is essentially is the best day of their young son’s or daughter’s life
“Following these expeditions, the Muscle Help Foundation (MHF) charity was established,” explains Michael, “a very important part of my world today, my life’s purpose.”
A national charity rooted in family values, MHF provides life-changing experiences called Muscle Dreams to children and young people, between the age of 8 and 28, with Muscular Dystrophy in the UK. These are highly personalised to the recipients, known as Muscle Warriors, ranging from hanging out with Lewis Hamilton or learning forest bushcraft skills with Ray Mears to interviewing ‘the godfather’, movie legend, Al Pacino. And to date, Michael and Susie have personally been involved in each one.
“It’s such a privilege to spend time with a family and create what is essentially is the best day of their young son’s or daughter’s life. These young people are vulnerable. What MHF does is to enable them to open their eyes to what’s possible, as opposed to what isn’t possible; this is so important.”
To evaluate the impact of these experiences on recipient’s lives, Michael shared six years of both quantitative and qualitative data – “including all the beautiful letters and cards” – with the Centre of Health Services and Clinical Research at the University of Hertfordshire. Their rigorous analysis academically validates the charity’s impact in a way never seen before in the wish-fulfilment sector – their report shows robust evidence of improved confidence, greater self-esteem and an increased sense of hopefulness to a powerful shared identity that connects beneficiary families together.
It also describes Michael as “an inspiration and role model to many of the young people”. And his remarkable achievements in the face of a cruel and debilitating condition can be an inspiration to anyone struggling against adversity to be the person they want to be.
When I got my diagnosis, I knew I was never going to go into the business of hospitality. But in a funny kind of way it’s come full circle and I’m now really connected to it
Prior to starting at the Polytechnic, Michael’s ambition had been to work in the hospitality industry. At the age of 15, he dreamt of becoming the General Manager of the Savoy Hotel in London. And when he was 17 actually secured, but then rejected, a place on the esteemed Savoy Trainee Management Scheme (he still has his offer letter!), opting instead to accept a place at the Poly. Whilst that dream was stolen away from him when he was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, his resolve was strong. Thirty years on, he remains involved with the industry that to this day he loves very much.
“When I got my diagnosis, I knew I was never going to go into the business of hospitality. But in a funny kind of way it’s come full circle and I’m now really connected to it, sitting as a judge, for ten years in 2020, on The Cateys – the Oscars of the hospitality world. And I also became the disABILITY Champion, a figurehead role, for Hilton Hotels across their UK & Ireland estate.”
Michael didn’t let his diagnosis derail his studies. He graduated with a 2:1 – a result that put him on the receiving end of some good-natured banter.
“My Poly friend, Paul Fowler and I were competitive. He got a first but I missed mine by three or four marks. He never let me forget it!”
This was an opportunity to elevate awareness of Muscular Dystrophy
The ability to learn new skills in order to take on fresh challenges is something that has characterised Michael’s career to date. When he first heard there was an expedition to the North Pole to raise money for a Muscular Dystrophy charity, of which Michael was a Trustee of, he knew this was something he had to be part of.
“This was an opportunity to make a difference, to elevate awareness of Muscular Dystrophy and to show the world who I truly am. But I needed to raise a significant amount of money. So, I learnt about brand, sponsorship and spreadsheets! It was a steep learning curve.”
I was immensely proud to be able to plant the Brookes flag!
The 2004 expedition to the South Pole was even more of a fundraising challenge. Michael secured the support of DHL as the primary sponsor with a bespoke proposition that drew on their global tagline of “we move the world” and a promise to plant their flag at the South Pole, along with others including Virgin, Hilton and Dragon’s Den star Duncan Bannatyne’s Leisure business.
To deliver on these promises, Michael battled gruelling physical conditions, extreme cold and the great weight of responsibility for his team’s safety in what Captain Robert Scott famously described as “an awful place”. And joining several sponsors’ flags at ninety degrees south was one other, a “particularly special one” in Michael’s own words.
“I was immensely proud to be able to plant the Brookes flag!” he says.
Optimism is true moral courage
Michael’s polar adventures gave him the perfect story to launch his professional speaking career, engaging hearts and minds of both private and public sector organisations.
Returning to his hospitality roots, his charity’s innovative new campaign called ‘Meatballs for Muscle Dreams’ aims to engage the nation’s appetite, in encouraging people to hold fundraising dinner parties so that the Muscle Help Foundation can continue to fulfil many more Muscle Dreams to add to the 297 facilitated to date.
Michael is optimistic that with more help and support, together with the dedication of the charity’s tribe of Muscle Warrior fundraisers and loyal volunteers, MHF can achieve their goal of 657 – that’s one for every muscle in the human body.
In Ernest Shackleton’s own words and a much-loved quote used by Michael when inspiring audiences, “optimism is true moral courage”. Whilst 657 is an ambitious target, given Michael’s record and achievements thus far, there’s every reason to think MHF will succeed.
Main photograph by Cyrus Mower
Words by Sirius Gibson
Further information about The Muscle Help Foundation
Contact Michael McGrath for speaking enquiries
Robin Buttery rowed 3,600 miles across the Indian Ocean, despite having Parkinson’s – and Professor Helen Dawes monitored the effects of his remarkable voyage
From the archives… this isn’t the first time Michael McGrath’s has featured in an Oxford Brookes alumni publication – read this article from 2004