John McKinlay attended Boston University and rowed on their varsity crew team in 1954 and 1955, captaining the crew in his senior year. His club team was the Detroit BC and he won five national titles and eight Canadian Henley championships in the company of his twin brother, Art. At the Olympics, their four-oared shell won their heat and semi-final easily but they were beaten decisively in the final by a Canadian crew. McKinlay studied real estate management at the University of Michigan, worked as a realtor and appraiser, served as past-president of the Birmingham Bloomfield Board of Realtors, and also sat on the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. He also served in the US Marine Corps. McKinlay was inducted into the Boston University Athletics Hall of Fame and the National Rowing Hall of fame.