Scottish strongman Tom Stoltman: ‘Autism is a superpower’

In contrast to many of the other athletes at this year’s World’s Strongest Man competition, two-time reigning champion Tom Stoltman presents as unflappable, almost stoic, during the tournament’s qualifying stages. His rivals often seem keen to maximize their adrenaline in the leadup to each event – they fist pump at the crowd, scream into the sky, have a training partner slap them on the back and so on. Stoltman, on the other hand, stares calmly into the middle distance, outwardly oblivious to the crowds and television cameras just feet away from him. Such measured behavior is a learned trait and, in Stoltman’s view, is a competitive advantage.

“The first few years, I used to go mental in the qualifiers and jump up and down … I would have been showing my emotions more, being aggressive more, hyping up the crowd and stuff,” he says. This is no longer the case. “If I got really angry today, or if got really hyped up, it’s going to just drain me … [My] tank is going to be empty by the time the final comes … That’s why I don’t really go out of first gear in the qualifiers.”

This kind of earned wisdom makes Stoltman one of the favorites to win this year’s competition, which started on Wednesday and concludes on Sunday in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. If he pulls off the victory, Stoltman would do more than just retain the mantel of World’s Strongest Man – at the still-young-for-his-sport age of 28 – he would catapult himself into the rarefied company of the competition’s all-time greats. In the competition’s nearly 50-year history, only two other athletes have won three consecutive titles, and no one has done so in the last quarter century. Before such discussions could be entertained seriously, however, Stoltman first needed to qualify for this year’s finals and, for a couple of hours during the group stages on Thursday, his bid for a three-peat was in jeopardy. After the first five events, Stoltman was on the verge of elimination … at least technically. It takes a moment to explain.

World’s Strongest Man is a multi-discipline competition – picture something like a weightlifting decathlon. Instead of using conventional weights, however, athletes pull large vehicles, carry 100kg anvils, lift equally large logs, and perform many other unusual feats of strength. The tournament’s first two days serve as its qualifying stages, during which the initial field of 30 competitors is whittled down to the 10 finalists who will participate six events over the tournament’s remaining two days. In many ways, the process is comparable to “making the cut” in golf tournaments—this is probably the only way in which strongman is similar to golf.

The points system for the qualifying stages are too complicated to explain here, but the salient facts are these: the tournament’s 30 competitors are divided into five groups and, after the first handful of events, the five individuals atop each group automatically advance to the finals. The athletes who come in second and third in each group, however, must compete head-to-head in a win-or-go-home challenge for one of the five remaining spots in the finals. Despite his status as reigning champion, a last-place finish in his group’s penultimate event meant that Stoltman was forced to face off against American Bobby Thompson for a spot in the final. Fortunately for Stoltman, the deciding event is called a “stone-off” and one of Stoltman’s nicknames is the King of the Stones.

“I’ll put it this way – if Tom lost the stone-off, I’d write an entire article about just that,” says Phil Blechman, staff editor at BarBend, a website that regularly covers strongman events. “Literally put any of the 29 other athletes against Tom [in a stone-off] and I’d say the same thing.”

A stone-off is one of strongman’s more thrilling events. The rules are simple: competitors take turns passing increasingly heavy boulders (known as ‘’atlas stones”) over a four-foot hurdle until one of them no longer can do so. The first strongman to fail to lift a boulder over the hurdle is eliminated from the tournament, and the winner moves on to the final. In his stone-off against Johnson, it becomes quickly evident how Stoltman earned his nickname. It almost seems like he and Thompson are participating in two totally different events. While Thompson skillfully, but effortfully, heaves stones barely above the barrier, Stoltman raises them with such ease that the stones appear to be airborne for a microsecond after every lift. Blechman’s earlier confidence in Stoltman becomes understandable –it’s difficult to imagine anyone beating him in the event.

Tom Stoltman competes in a stone-off.
Tom Stoltman competes in a stone-off. Photograph: Channel 5

“I’ve never lost a stone-off,” Stoltman later confirms when speaking with The Guardian shortly after his victory over Thompson. Wearing a throwback Penny Hardaway basketball jersey and greeting acquaintances as he walks through a hotel lobby, Stoltman seems relaxed after a long day of competition in the South Carolina sun.

“The group stage is, for myself, the hardest part,” he says. “It was a very competitive field, which was good to see. You know, you’re at World’s Strongest Man, you want the thirty best guys. You don’t just want to be able to walk into the final.”

A native of Invergordon, Scotland, Stoltman is many things, including unignorably enormous, even for a strongman. At 6ft 8in (2.03m), 418lbs (190kg), if he were he born a thousand years ago people probably would have just assumed he was an actual giant. It is therefore surprising to learn that Stoltman came to weightlifting relatively late in life.

“Going to the gym at 18 years old, I was skinny … [I was] never stronger than my mates,” Stoltman reveals. “I was just a normal guy. I used to play soccer, football –that’s what I wanted to be, a professional footballer… I hated the gym, I didn’t see the point.” Ten years later, that same skinny teenager who once hated the gym is now the World’s Strongest Man. What happened?

Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, going to the gym seems to have saved Stoltman’s life. Stoltman is on the autism spectrum, which often made him feel isolated as a young man. “My teachers said you’re not going to do anything with your life. I was getting bullied … I wouldn’t be able to go sleep over at a friend’s house. I wouldn’t be able to go on a train 10 minutes from my house. I’d always have to have my mum everywhere.” His difficulties were amplified after leaving school and seeing his friends begin to move away.

“I was really, kind of, disheartened that I had autism … I was like ‘Why is it me who has it and not my brothers and sisters?’” Stoltman remembers. “I quit my football team because all my friends had left and I didn’t have anywhere to go. I locked myself in my house was like, ‘Right, I’m either going into [the social care system] or I’ll just kill myself.’”

Stoltman credits going to the gym with changing his perspective on his condition, implying that some of autism’s characteristics eventually proved crucial to his training. “Because I’m so tunnel-visioned,” he says, “it’s a superpower”.

Stoltman’s transformation isn’t solely a result of tunnel vision and reps, of course – it’s taken a decade of consistent training to transform his body. Stoltman consumes 10,000 calories per day and trains five days a week in the months leading up to a World’s Strongest Man. (“Saturday and Sunday are my downtime,” says Stoltman. “It took me a while to get that balance right.”) Nevertheless, Stoltman’s relationship with autism is a major element in both his private and professional lives and, since winning World’s Strongest Man, he has endeavored to make it a significant feature of his public life as well.

“I’ve got this platform,” Stoltman says. “My biggest goal is to be an ambassador for people with autism and to change the way people look at it. I’ve had five-year-old, six-year-old kids … all the way up to 40- or 50-year-olds saying to me, ‘You’ve changed my life by calling [autism] as superpower.’”

When asked how people unfamiliar with autism can best engage with the topic, Stoltman recommends empathetic directness. “If you think someone’s got autism, if you think someone needs help, just [ask] them. They’re not going to be offended by it, they’re going to be thankful that you asked that question … That’s all I ever wanted for myself.”

It’s tempting to juxtapose Stoltman’s thoughtful advocacy with his imposing physical stature. To do so, however, is reductive – plus, the phrase “gentle giant” is too clichéd to carry any real meaning. The truth is, it seems like Stoltman would be an eloquent public face for those on the autism spectrum, regardless of his size.

Moreover, as movingly as he speaks about his condition, Stoltman also remains a battle-tested athlete keen on winning his third consecutive World’s Strongest Man title on Sunday. “I’m very, very confident [heading into the finals],” he says. “It’s going to be a good battle, but I’m not giving that title up easy.”