Tom Stoltman is one of the strongest men on the planet. The hulking 6’8.” 400-pound Scotsman can lift a 630-pound Atlas stone and press well over 400 pounds overhead. In the 2020 World’s Strongest Man contest, Stoltman came in a close second place behind Oleksii Novikov. Notably, he won three of the six events in the finals and, as everyone expected, decimated the stone medley by loading all five stones in 19.89 seconds.
Recently, Stoltman has demonstrated his strength in another way — by opening up about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and spreading awareness within the strongman community and to his 213,000 Instagram followers. Diagnosed as a child, Stoltman says autism helps him thrive as a professional athlete. In a recent Instagram post, he calls it his “superpower.”
April is Autism Awareness Month — also referred to as Autism Acceptance Month — in the United States. And April 2nd is known as World Autism Awareness Day. According to The Autism Society of America, one in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with ASD. Boys are approximately four and a half times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. While it may be an uncomfortable topic for some to discuss, Stoltman sees himself as a role model. He embraces the position. Stoltman carved some time out of his busy schedule — which includes prepping for the 2021 WSM contest in June — to speak with BarBend about his training, ASD, and to give advice to those supporting loved ones with an autism diagnosis.
Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for readability.
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BarBend: Thanks for speaking with us, Tom. The 2021 WSM is approaching fast. How is training for that event going?
Tom Stoltman: I wanted to do a contest before World’s Strongest Man, so I entered Bahrain (Strength Island). I had no expectations, and I had a few weaknesses. [Stoltman placed fifth overall]. I wasn’t as fit because I was too big. As soon as I got home, I did eight weeks of fitness. That left me about 12 weeks to prepare for World’s Strongest Man. I did a lot of high rep stuff, a lot of fitness stuff, and I did an hour and a half of conditioning a week as well. Now I feel amazing.
If you see the YouTube stuff that Luke and I do, I’m getting faster, the log press is getting better, and everything is falling into place. Many people would’ve just decided to skip another comp, they go into WSM and things come crumbling down. I’m so glad I did that competition first because now I have a specific game plan. Some of these guys would’ve just trained for 18 or 20 weeks and went right in. It’s so hard to peak after 18 weeks.
TS: It’s going well. That’s probably what stopped me from winning World’s last year. [Tom placed ninth in the Hercules Hold at the 2020 WSM, which hurt his overall placing]. If you see videos of me doing farmer’s walks, I had no trouble with that. It’s weird how when it came to the Hercules Hold or events like that, I wouldn’t do well. Part of it was physical, but it was also my mind. I would be scared because of my left hand. When I felt the pain or felt my hand begin to go, I just let it go. Now, I have gone on the Hercules Hold for over a minute. I have been working with a specialist, and I’ve trained my mind to go to a different place.
BarBend: You were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as a child. How has being aware of your diagnosis so early helped you as an athlete?
TS: Before my diagnosis, when I was younger, I felt a lot of pressure because people in secondary school would see me get extra attention and help. Even when I was getting into the sport of strongman, people were paying attention because Luke was doing all the talking. Then every athlete and organization started understanding how I processed information. I think autism makes you a better athlete because when you’re autistic, you’re kind of OCD, and you have a routine that you stick to.
Think about strongman — eat, sleep, train, every day, repeat. Now, my brain can also monitor how I’m feeling, and I’ve come a long way. If I wanted to train at 2:00 but can’t until 4:00, my brain can now cope with that. I’m not nervous, panicking, or overwhelmed because of the change. In a sport like strongman, you have to mature quickly. It’s you versus 12 people, and 12,000 people are watching — there’s nowhere to hide. In a few shows, I got overwhelmed and had to take a step back, and the Hercules Hold is an example. Now when I train, I repeat “squeeze, hold, squeeze, hold,” and that has helped me a lot. When you get those simple instructions, it’s like concrete. When my mind is right, no one can beat me.
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BarBend: You mentioned Luke. How has your older brother supported you throughout your strongman career and life?
TS: Everyone can see how much Luke has helped from the moment I started competing to now. If you want an example, look at 2020 World’s Strongest Man. I didn’t have my wife and son with me. It was Luke. Unfortunately, he got knocked out. So he turned his attention to helping me. He wouldn’t let me do much, so I was rested and ready for the next event. People obviously see the comp stuff, but they don’t see the deep, deep stuff he does to help me every day.
Being brothers, training partners, and now business partners, he does get frustrated with me sometimes because he has to repeat things and stuff like that. Luke has definitely made me the man I am today. If he didn’t take me to a gym when I was 16 or 17 years old, I could’ve ended up going down a path I didn’t want to. He has helped me transition from the gym to the sport, and he has helped me become a functioning member of society.
BarBend: You’ve been very open about ASD. What is the message that you want to put out to the world?
TS: Even these days, autism isn’t as well known worldwide as it should be. There are misdiagnoses, and parents have trouble dealing with it. I get messages from people that struggle because their kids or husbands or wives have it, and they get frustrated because of having to repeat themselves and things like that. I want to be an ambassador for them. Being in strongman has shown people that they can do amazing things as well. They say they want to follow in my footsteps, and I’m happy that helps.
People think of [ASD] as a label and say, “you’re never going to amount to anything” or “you’re always going to live in your parents’ house,” but that doesn’t mean anything. Prove them wrong. When I was younger, I heard all of that. A teacher even told me, “you’re not going to be anything.” Fast forward 10 years, and I’m one of the more successful strongmen in the world. Never let people say you can’t do stuff. People should have a positive support base around them to do whatever it is they want to do.
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BarBend: In March 2021, you shared some hard times you were going through. What do you do when those challenging moments like you spoke about come up?
TS: Ninety percent of the time is good, but there is that 10 percent. I go to my own place in my mind. That is the best mechanism for me. I do have a tremendous wife who supports me, but that can even be too much sometimes. So that means going off to be by myself. For me, being at the sea for 10 minutes is one of the best feelings I can ever have. That has helped me big time. As great as having positive people is, being by myself sometimes is best. I know myself. That is what everyone should do. Find what works for them and do that when you need to. It is different for everyone. Whatever that coping mechanism is for you, use it when you need to so you can move forward.
BarBend: How can people better support someone with ASD?
TS: Be positive. You need to be able to come to their level. Write things down. You may have to repeat things a hundred times, but try not to show frustration. If you do, they will go into their own little depressed and sad world. Positivity for me is key. No matter who you are or where you are, try your best to be around positive people. If there are negative people, get them out, even if they are friends. Having that support base and being positive is important for people with autism. If there is something they want to do, let them go on their own journey to overcome those hurdles they need to.
Featured Images: @tomstoltmanofficial on Instagram