10 Adaptive Strength Sports Athletes You Should Know in 2021

These athletes still have their best competitive years ahead of them.

From CrossFit® to bodybuilding to strongman to powerlifting and weightlifting, adaptive athletes excel in every strength sport. A new Adaptive Division was introduced alongside the 2021 CrossFit Open schedule, and the first International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) female wheelchair bodybuilding pro card was earned at the 2020 Olympia. There were many major strides made in 2020 for adaptive athletes.

While some of the more known adaptive athletes like Logan Aldridge — the Training Director of the Adaptive Training Academy — might be closer to a household name in the fitness space, many athletes should be on your radar heading deeper into 2021. Below are 10 adaptive athletes across five different strength sports that you should be aware of as we head into 2021’s suite of competitions.


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[Related: Adaptive Athlete Joe Micco’s Message: Don’t Just Accept Your Prognosis]


James Spurgin

The Marine Corps veteran from Reynoldsburg, OH, is a unique kind of strength athlete. He is active in weightlifting, powerlifting, CrossFit®, and strongman despite sustaining a brachial plexus injury from a motorcycle accident in 2006 that stripped the use of his right arm. His training nowadays is primarily focused on strongman, and he has become one of the elite in the sport. Here are some of his recent competitive highlights:

  • 2016 America’s Strongest Adaptive Athlete — Second Place
  • 2017 Arnold’s Strongest Disabled Man — Fifth Place, Standing Division
  • 2017 America’s Strongest Disabled Man — Fifth Place, Standing Division
  • 2019 Static Monsters — First Place, Standing Division
  • 2020 Static Monsters — First Place, Standing Division
  • 2020 World’s Strongest Disabled Man — First Place, Standing C2 Division

On Oct. 25, 2020, Spurgin set the one-armed partial deadlift world record when he pulled 306 kilograms (675 pounds).

[Related: Antonio Martin: Untrained 430 Pound Bench Press to Para Powerlifting Superstar]

Chris Ruden

According to Ruden’s website, he has a “congenital birth defect leaving him with only two fingers on his left hand and a shorter left arm.” He was also diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at age 19. Despite that, he is a competitive powerlifter, strongman, and motivational speaker after acquiring his B.S. in exercise science. He was even on the roster of the first season of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson‘s competition fitness show The Titan Games.

When it comes to Ruden’s training, he is a fan of progressive overload — a gradual and trackable increase of weight to increase strength over time. An example of this might be increasing the weight on a barbell or increasing any stress on the body that is trackable. His commitment to periodization prepared him to compete at Strongman Corporation’s 2017 Arnold World’s Strongest Disabled Man.

Ruden can deadlift an incredible amount of weight off the floor — deadlifting 297 kilograms (655 pounds). Ruden told BarBend, “lifting heavy is an ongoing personal competition…it’s my therapy, and it’s how I help other people.”

[Related: Master the Deadlift For Muscle, Raw Strength, and Power]


Harold “King Kong” Kelley

The wheelchair division at the Olympia was established in 2018. Anyone who looks at the results of the Wheelchair Olympia from 2018, 2019, and 2020 will only see one name next to first place — Harold “King Kong” Kelley. At the 2020 Olympia, he was only scored five points by the judges (the lower the score, the better the placement) — five ahead of Antoni Khadraoui and 10 points ahead of Adelfo Cerame Jr., who placed second and third, respectively.

Check out his posing routine from the 2020 Olympia below courtesy of WheelChairBB‘s YouTube channel:

[Related: How Bodybuilding is Judged, Different Divisions, and Scoring]

Jen Pasky Jaquin

The female wheelchair bodybuilder Jen Pasky Jaquin was a mainstay guest poser at Arnold Sports Festivals and Olympia Weekends but was without a division of her own to compete in. At the 2020 Olympia weekend, she was again invited to Orlando, FL, as a guest poser and sported an impressive physique. To Pasky Jaquin’s surprise, following her posing routine, the 42-year-old received the first-ever IFBB pro card for female wheelchair bodybuilding.

You can watch her posing routine from the 2020 Olympia below via WheelChairBB‘s YouTube channel:

[Related: 10 Athletes to Watch In the 2021 CrossFit Open]


Kevin Ogar

Kevin Ogar was performing a snatch at an unsanctioned fitness competition in January 2014. After dumping the 235-pound attempt, an unfortunate bounce caused the bar to hit his T-10 while still in the lowered position — it severed his spine and paralyzed him from the belly button down. The life-altering injury, however, did not remove him from a life in the fitness space.

He has since opened CrossFit Watchtower in Englewood, CO, joined the CrossFit Level One Seminar Staff, represented Team USA for World Para Powerlifting in 2017 and 2018. Additionally, he got involved with:

  • WheelWOD — a functional fitness competition for adaptive athletes.
  • Joined the board of the Reveille Project — a nonprofit organization that restores veterans’ lives post active duty.
  • Became the CrossFit Affiliate Representative for Colorado.
  • Became head coach at the Adaptive Training Academy.

[Related: What You Don’t Know About the CrossFit Games Grind (with Amanda Barnhart)]

Casey Acree

Acree is the co-owner and coach at Summit Systems — a personal training organization in Decatur, IL. Born without part of his left arm, his prowess in the functional fitness world is remarkable. He can bust out bar muscle-ups, handstand push-ups, wall balls, and even clean & jerking 270 pounds.

He has four Wodapalooza wins in the Adaptive division to his name and two WheelWOD Games titles in the Upper Impaired division. Check out the short profile video below from CrossFit®’s YouTube channel:

[Related: USAPL Announces Adaptive, MX, Para Bench, and Raw with Wraps Categories]


Marybeth Baluyot

Powerlifter and co-founder of the Disabled Girls Who Lift podcast, Baluyot, has a strong stance on how others perceive adaptive athletes. As an advocate for more inclusivity in strength sports, she is not interested in being someone’s inspiration if it derives from simply doing what a non-adaptive athlete can do.

During her competitive powerlifting career, she has competed in three weight classes — 48 kilograms, 52 kilograms, and where she currently competes, 57-kilograms. According to Open Powerlifting, her sanctioned competition debut was at the 2015 United States Powerlifting Association (USPA) No Limit Best of the West Classic at age 23, which she won. Since then, she has competed in 10 events, won six of them, and only missed the podium once. Here are her best competition raw lifts:

  • Squat — 122.5 kilograms (270 pounds)
  • Bench Press — 60 kilograms (132.2 pounds)
  • Deadlift — 130 kilograms (286.6 pounds)
  • Total — 277.5 kilograms (611.7 pounds)

[Related: What You Need to Know About How to Increase Strength]

KC Mitchell

Mitchell is a military veteran who suffered a severe injury after his unit drove over an IED while on patrol. Rather than endure the long, difficult and uncertain process of physical therapy and surgery, he opted to have his left leg amputated. He now uses a prosthetic leg.

The “one-leg monster’s” claim to fame came in the sport came on Jan. 7, 2017, when he became the first amputee to ever compete in a full powerlifting meet sanctioned by the USPA in the non-adaptive Open division. He competed in the 110-kilogram weight class in that event and scored the following lifts:

  • Squat — 197.3 kilograms (435 pounds)
  • Bench Press — 192.3 kilograms (424 pounds)
  • Deadlift — 272.2 kilograms (600 pounds)
  • Total — 662.2 kilograms (1,460 pounds)


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[Related: 5 Life Lessons Olympic Weightlifting Can Teach You]


Victor Hugo Castro Assaf

Castro Assaf lost the use of his right arm after a motorcycle accident. He crashed into a poll that ruptured his brachial plexus, fractured his jaw, damaged three vertebrae, and was in a coma. Castro Assaf’s outlook on his injury may come as a surprise to most. In an interview, he told BarBend:

“It changed my life completely and how I look at life. I don’t consider the accident a bad thing, it was completely the opposite! What happened that day made me see things more clearly and with a different perspective.”

Ten surgeries and 13 skin grafts later, he got back into training following his recovery and relearned how to do pull-ups, thrusters, cleans, and snatches. He has proven his ability in weightlifting, CrossFit®, and strongman, and is likely most recognized his proficiency moving a barbell with one arm.

[Related: 3 Common Snatch Mistakes (Plus How To FIX Them)]

Brandi Darby

In August 2018, at the American Open Series 2 weightlifting competition, blind weightlifter Brandi Darby placed third in the 90-kilogram weight class in the Masters division at 36. She earned the bronze with the following lifts:

  • Snatch — 65 kilograms (143 pounds) 
  • Clean & Jerk — 70 kilograms (154.3 pounds)
  • Total — 135 kilograms (297.6 pounds)

Darby became the second-ever blind weightlifter to stand on the podium of a sanctioned national competition. (Artie Ehman, a legally blind athlete who placed third in the Open division of a 1958 regional Junior National Championships, was the first.)

She found her way to weightlifting via CrossFit® and did not set out to win any medals, but rather set a positive example for other lifters with disabilities who might follow in her footsteps. Fortunately, she was able to do both.

[Related: Multi-Time Paralympian Ali Jawad Talks Training And Anti-Doping Efforts In Paralympic Powerlifting]

Onward to 2021

As competitive strength sports continue to expand, there are more opportunities than ever before for adaptive athletes to compete at the highest level. We eagerly await their performances and the future adaptive athletes they inspire to reach for a barbell.

Editor’s note: BarBend is an official media provider for World Para Powerlifting.

Featured Image from KC Mitchell’s Instagram page: @that1legmonster