Strongman Tom Stoltman Says the 'Gym Saved My Life' After Struggles with Autism and Depression

·4 min read
Tom Stoltman
Tom Stoltman

Joe Martinez/World’s Strongest Man Tom Stoltman, World's Strongest Man

"World's Strongest Man" winner Tom Stoltman says strength athletics is "a lonely sport." For the 28-year-old athlete, that's a good thing.

At eight, Stoltman was diagnosed with autism, he tells PEOPLE. According to Autism Speaks, the disorder refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

"The school I went from 5 to 12 onwards was very, very difficult for me," says Stoltman. "I ended up just saying to my mom, 'I'm not going back to school because it's so, so hard.' Then one day I just said that I want to tell my friends that I've got autism, and if they don't like it, they don't like me, but if they accept me for who I am, then that's fine."

His academic struggles weren't for a lack of trying. Stoltman says he "liked to learn" when he could get things written down, but struggled to retain the "textbooks and verbal stuff."

Tom Stoltman
Tom Stoltman

Joe Martinez/World’s Strongest Man Tom Stoltman

Stoltman says that at school, he often worried about feeling safe without his family by his side. "I would cry, break down. I would have my hood on. I wouldn't talk to anybody else outside my family," he says.

"My siblings had to support me as well, and they sacrificed a lot of time away from my mom and dad so they could help, and so that I could get the help I needed," the athlete explains.

Stoltman's older brother, Luke Stoltman, who is a strongman as well, encouraged him to go to the gym. And while strength training would later become his career, at the time, Stoltman, who is Scottish, just wanted to play soccer. "That was my coping mechanism," he says.

RELATED: Tom Stoltman Defends World's Strongest Man Title: 'Almost Unheard Of'

Stoltman thought that soccer (or football, considering he's a Scotsman) would be his path. "That's what I thought God gifted me because that's the only time I didn't feel different, when I had a football at my feet," he says. But as it became clear that professional football was an unrealistic goal, his mental health declined.

Tom Stoltman
Tom Stoltman

Joe Martinez/World’s Strongest Man

Stoltman tells PEOPLE, "I locked myself in my room for three or four months. My mom and dad would pass me food in my room. They were really worried about me, like suicidal thoughts...I could have been in a care home and stuff. That's when my brother just came to me and said, 'Look, come to the gym and let's assume we can change your life around.'"

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And this time, "the gym saved my life," Stoltman says. It wasn't long before he had enough success with strength training that he quit his job working security at a construction site to pursue Strongman competitions, where athletes do seemingly-impossible tasks like pulling trucks with a rope, deadlifting over 1,000 lbs. and throwing 16.5-ft. logs.

"I didn't want to blow the opportunity I had with Strongman, like I did with football," he says. "I just quit football because things were getting hard and I didn't enjoy it. I enjoyed Strongman, and I enjoyed lifting weights."

Tom Stoltman
Tom Stoltman

Joe Martinez/World’s Strongest Man

In 2021, Stoltman won the title of World's Strongest Man, and in 2022 he did it again.

"To me, mentally, he's the strongest person ever right now," his wife Sinead tells PEOPLE. With soccer, she says, "There was just a lot that he couldn't cope very well with, like having to train at a certain time, and eat food at a certain time, and getting told what to do all the time."

But now, the strongman's wife says, Stoltman has a new-found ease with things that he struggled with in the past, like public speaking. "He'll just talk in front of not just Scotland, but the whole world actually, and he is just so confident in himself."

With a smile on her face, Sinead says, "I don't see Tom as just the world's strongest man. I just see him as Tom, the person who's grown to be a better version of himself rather than just being the world's strongest man."

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