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How Tom Stoltman Proved That “Autism is a Superpower”

The inspiring story behind the 3-time World’s Strongest Man.

The inspiring underdog story of Tom Stoltman and how he turned his autism into a superpower.
Credit-World's Strongest Man/Tom Stoltman/Joker Mag

“I just could not look at people. Couldn’t talk…”

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines normal as conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.

Tom “The Albatross” Stoltman is anything but normal.

At 6’8” and 403 pounds, he makes the biggest NFL players look like shrimp.

He’s also known as the “King of the Stones”, able to lift enormous boulders weighing up to 462 pounds faster than anyone on the planet.

He’s lifted five of them in 16.01 seconds.

Tom can shoulder press 330 pounds fourteen times as part of the Viking Press. And oh yeah, he devours about 13,000 calories a day when training for competition.

Pretty normal, right?

Tom Stoltman is also the 3-time World’s Strongest Man. He just won his third the first week of May 2024. He became just the seventh man ever to do so in the 50-year history of the competition.

But being crowned World’s Strongest Man isn’t what makes Tom different. 

He transcends the “normal” expectations of someone with autism.

Throughout his journey, he learned to embrace what makes him different and discover his purpose in life.

Tom was diagnosed with autism at five years old. The CDC estimates that 1 in 36 children and 1 in 45 adults are autistic.

There are many types of autism, but in general, people with autism tend to share common difficulties, characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.

Experts still don’t know exactly what causes it, but they say both genetic influences and environmental influences play a role.

Tom Stoltman quote: "A teacher said, 'Oh, you're not gonna do nothing [in life].' And that kind of stuck with me...I believed that for a long, long time."

Young Tom Stoltman struggled early on.

“A teacher said, ‘Oh, you’re not gonna do nothing [in life].’ And that kind of stuck with me…I believed that for a long, long time.”

“I would cry, break down. I would have my hood on. I wouldn’t talk to anybody else outside my family.”

He struggled to grasp things as quickly as some of the other kids along with his social challenges.

But Tom fell in love with soccer. It quickly became his salvation.

He was good enough to get invited to the academy of the Scottish soccer giants, Glasgow Rangers.  But after some of his friends left the academy and things got tough, Tom hit a low point.

“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 and was like, ‘Right, I’m either going into [the social care system] or I’ll just kill myself.’”

Fortunately, his older brother Luke stepped in at the right time to prevent a tragedy. 

Luke had been lifting weights for years. Inspired by an old photo of their grandfather carrying a log the size of his body, he originally trained for bodybuilding starting at age 15.

He eventually shifted to strength training as it piqued his interest. Ten years older than Tom and considered a late bloomer, Luke entered and won his first strength contest at 27 years old in 2011.

This was right around the time that Tom hit his lowest point.

“I was a skinny boy, not much confidence, and Luke said, ‘Come on to the gym.’ So I went to my local gym and hated every single minute of it,” Tom said.

“I didn’t like the people staring at me. But I kept going and kept on pushing myself and Luke kept on pushing me.”

Driven by this newfound interest and a desire to keep up with his older brother, Tom threw himself into training. Within a couple of years, he was competing in local competitions.

At 18 years old, he entered and won his first, the Highlands Strongest Man, with ease. After proving he could compete locally, he took his efforts countrywide, placing fifth in Scotland’s Strongest Man competition in 2013.

Tom’s expertise grew over the next few years. Unlike his peers, he had the advantage of learning directly from his older brother.

2017 was Tom’s breakout year.

He was invited to his first World’s Strongest Man competition after finishing second in the UK’s Strongest Man.

If you aren’t familiar, the World’s Strongest Man competition is like the Super Bowl of strength training.

Getting an invite validates your status as a legit competitor in the field. It’s the ultimate battle of will, stamina, mental fortitude, and of course, strength.

Contestants take part in events over the course of five days.

The events are set up to test the outer limits of human ability. They include the car walk, deadlift ladder, sandbag steeplechase, and stone off – Tom’s favorite. 

Although he qualified, he didn’t make it out of the group stage. It would take a few more years for him to establish himself as a respected contestant.

He finished fifth at the World’s Strongest Man competition in 2019 in Florida – inching closer and closer to the podium at a major event.

He reached another breakthrough later that year, placing:

  • 3rd at Britain’s Strongest Man in January
  • 4th at Europe’s Strongest Man in April
  • 2nd at Britain’s Strongest Man in January 2020

Eager to top his 5th-place finish the previous year, Tom just missed out on winning his first World’s Strongest Man title in 2020.

He finished second, just four points short of the winner, Oleksii Novikov.

Tom Stoltman says: "I’m willing to sacrifice a lot of things to do what I need to, and I think that’s what makes me different — I work harder than the rest and I sacrifice a lot to be the best in the world.”

Tom’s competitive drive along with his ‘superpower’ propelled him to new heights.

“For me, autism is a superpower.”

“Having autism and [going to] the gym goes hand-in-hand. When you’re in the gym, you need a routine. And obviously, when I found ‘Strongman,’ it’s all routine”.

Things started to click for him in 2021.

Tom won his first World’s Strongest Man competition and Britain’s Strongest Man competition later that year.

The wins were more than just validation for him; he was able to make good on a promise.

Tom’s mother passed away from cancer in 2016. 

Before she passed, he promised her that he would win the World’s Strongest Man in her honor. As his biggest fan, honoring her memory with the win was priceless. 

But he was still hungry for more.

Tom became just the 10th person to ever win the World’s Strongest Man back-to-back, defending his title in 2022 in Sacramento.

“When I won it in 2021, I always wanted to come back and battle again. I think if you win the title, you should go back and try and defend it.”

He tried to three-peat as well in 2023 to become just the third person ever to do so. He came up just short, coming in second to Mitchell Hooper by 4.5 points.

Tom was disappointed, but he didn’t let that setback keep him down.

In January 2024, he won Britain’s Strongest Man competition, placed third in the Arnold Strongman Classic in March, and then reclaimed his title as World’s Strongest Man at the beginning of May.

The latest win was his eighth straight podium appearance in a major event. 

What’s scary about his form (at least to his competition) is he’s just hitting his prime. Tom turned 30 at the end of May and shows no signs of slowing down.

“I just think about all the hard work and sacrifice. I’m willing to sacrifice a lot of things to do what I need to, and I think that’s what makes me different — I work harder than the rest and I sacrifice a lot to be the best in the world.”

The Stoltman Brothers have become legendary in their native Invergordon, Scotland. 

When you drive into the northeast Highlands town, you’ll see a sign that reads:

“Welcome to INVERGORDON: Hometown of the Stoltman Brothers – World, European & UK Strongest Men”.

Luke and Tom own a local gym, a growing business together, and have hundreds of thousands of fans on social media.

Tom continues to inspire people with autism of all ages with his defiant motto. 

“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] a superpower.’”

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Written By

Rodney is a freelance writer and alum of the University of Georgia. He grew up in the Atlanta area but now resides in Tampa, FL. His interests include sports, writing, reading, and talking smack about his favorite sports teams.

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