Tom Stoltman could not get on a bus until he was 14 years old, but fast forward 10 years, and you will find him towing them instead – with his bare hands.
Drive and determination provide the perfect fuel to his own 6’8”, 342-pound chassis, helping him attune to his autism and pull away from competitors at junior level.
But nobody said placing fifth in the World’s Strongest Man (WSM) rankings was ever going to be an easy ride; the small-town boy from Invergordon, Scotland, has defied all odds on his journey to the elite, and will not stop until he is number one.
He is already halfway there – he and his brother Luke were crowned the world’s strongest brothers at last year’s WSM competition. It was Luke who first took Tom to the gym after he fell out of love with school and exercise as a teenager who was feeling at risk of being outcast.
However, Tom knows conquering the planet would be no more than a wild dream had he not recovered from almost exiling himself from his sport, falling victim to his high standards at Britain’s Strongest Man just two years ago.
“I was up against people I had beaten in the past and I came last; I didn’t complete the competition,” admitted Tom, who went on to secure podium places in 2019 and 2020.
“I walked off the stage and said I can’t do strongman ever again. I took two weeks off and decided there was too much pressure, too much of a crowd.
“That was the best thing that’s ever happened to me because I am much stronger mentally. I have never repeated that since and I’ve learnt how to live with failure – everybody fails sometimes.
“So, when I lost my luggage at the World’s last year, I didn’t care one bit. I went out to the shop and got what I needed, and my sponsors gave me my kit. If that had been two or three years ago, I would have lost my head.
“But doing my first competition at 18 was the hardest thing I’ve done – I wasn’t really good at talking to the camera. There were a few thousand people there and I just had my head down the whole time when I was trying to get interviewed.
“It was a massive wake up point for me and I forced myself to do it. That’s why I developed so quickly as a young adult.”
With autism, Tom openly admitted to finding this more difficult. Speaking in front of his class at school was enough of a challenge, let alone being under the watch of the world at a strongman event.
But the die-hard Rangers fan has come a long way since first hitting the gym – what was once Luke’s garage is now a spacious state-of-the-art strongman facility that the brothers cannot wait to reopen to the public once lockdown restrictions ease in Scotland.
For Tom, in particular, the gym is about giving back to the community that helped him discover himself.
“I was training a lot of school kids before lockdown. The school I went to – the Academy of Invergordon – knows about autism and Asperger’s, and they’ve seen me grow up, so they would bring some of the misbehaved or challenging students down to my gym every week. They love it.
“Anyone can come to our gym. A lot of people get scared that we are elite athletes, but we always want to help people. If we can provide the facility that helps the next person be the best in the world, in strongman or bodybuilding, then that will be an achievement ticked off the list.
“It’s called the Stoltman Strength Centre and now it is double the size. We didn’t have our own space where we could do strongman – we just trained around potholes and parked cars – so we wanted to make ourselves better athletes and make this gym better for people travelling up to train with us.
“We want it to have longevity, so we can have it while strongman is on, but once we retire as well.”
Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity to dedicate time to the centre, with Tom usually travelling the world for competitions, or up and down the UK delivering inspiring talks to autistic school children who often feel misunderstood.
However, Tom, nicknamed ‘The Albatross’, is not only breaking barriers for people with autism but what is deemed as humanly possible. The former security guard and construction site worker is planning to lift a 304kg Atlas Stone, having already broken the world record twice for this event in 2020.
For a man of routine, preparing to lift a stone that is heavier than an average grizzly bear without a date to aim for is a difficult test – one that requires Tom to tap into all the life lessons he has accumulated so far.
“I went full time about two years ago because I was doing 12-hour shifts and gym training and every day was different, so I never had a routine. That really annoyed me.
“But now I wake up and I know that nothing is going to change dramatically. My wife would tell me she wants to do something the night before or in the morning, and I can deal much better now; if that was two years ago, I wouldn’t cope.
“A few of my stone sessions have been a little bit on and off since I broke the world record, because I’ve been thinking about when the [304kg] stone is going to be, but recently, I’ve tried to put it at the back of my mind and have some fun.
“I know I can do it and when I get that date, I’ll be switched on. I feel really strong all over right now; surprisingly my last log lift was really good – I could get a world record in log as well you never know!
“I just want to keep taking my body to the limits, doing things that have never been seen before.”
When looking back at former strongman champions, Tom has some big shoes to fill (luckily, he has size 17 feet).
However, Tom feels he has surpassed many expectations already.
“I was the second one to get married and the third one to move out of the house – that was a massive goal for me with autism,” added Tom, who has two older and two younger siblings. “I wasn’t maturing as fast as my brothers, and they said I’d be the last to move out.
“My mum passed away at the time I was getting independent. I was grieving for a while and got depressed, but I went out and did what she wanted me to do: be a gentleman, have a house, and do the best I can in what I do.
“I have a tattoo of her on my shoulder and that has given me all the hope in the world. She was always supporting me from day one and she has always been there in spirit; she would be shouting and screaming at me. That’s what has driven me to be the athlete I want to be.
“Sports people are really good role models for what you can achieve. For me in school, it was about what will make the kid work harder, rather than not.
“At the Academy, [you were encouraged to feel] as if you were old enough to do things by yourself, and that will make or break a child with Asperger’s and that broke me for a while. I still need to be more open about it, but hopefully, it will come.
“I just wanted to prove people wrong, and I’m doing that every year.”