Overcoming the Broken Wing: My Journey to America’s Strongest Man
By Derek Stone
In May of 2013, during my 25th Amatuer Contest, I was finally able to break through and win that Middleweight pro card I had worked so hard for. What most people didn’t know is that even before that contest started I had already scheduled a surgery to repair my right elbow. I had been plagued with pain, numbness, and a range of motion that was getting worse by the day. I spoke with my doctor and schedule the surgery for after the contest. I walked in knowing it would be my last chance for several months. I was blessed and able to pull out the victory, but that is the only part that went according to plan.
I had the surgery a couple weeks later. I followed all of the surgeons and therapist orders. I went to therapy a few times a week. I made great progress and my flexion improved greatly, but then it took a turn for the worse. My flexion slowly started to regress. I went back to my doctor and he told me to keep stretching and working on my therapy. I did, but it kept regressing. Finally, frustrated with getting no answers, I got in to see another surgeon. He ran some diagnostic tests and told me that a piece had broken off and scar tissue had grown all around it. He needed to do arthroscopic surgery to clean it out. This was a huge blow, as it cost me my trip to the Arnold. The 3 month recovery I expected had just turned into a second surgery.
February 2014, I had my second surgery. It was arthroscopic. I got in and out pretty quick. I Started therapy and again R.O.M improved greatly. The problem this time was that every time I would bend past 90 degrees the muscles in my hand and forearm would tense up. I tried all my stretching and therapy protocols to no avail. The surgeon finally found a solution;to move the ulnar nerve so that it cannot be crushed between the bones causing the reciprocal inhibition.
June 2014. I had my ulnar nerve transposition to move the nerve to a new location. This was extremely painful and took quite a while to get all the feeling back in my fingers. I did the rehab and the stretching and progressed to a pretty good point. Then it was like I hit a wall. No amount of stretching would move my elbow. After trying several non surgical solutions the doctor ran a CT scan. During the time between my second and third surgery, scar tissue had grown in the end range of motion that I was not able to use. So now that the nerve was out of the way it was the limiting factor.
June 2015:surgery to have the scar tissue removed. Countless hours of physical therapy and stretching and my elbow is now in a pretty good place. It’s not normal. I don’t have full range of motion and I won’t ever, but I am able to do more than I have been able to in a long time.
Now you may be wondering why I would go into such detail about my injury history. I wanted you to know the whole story before I went into how it affected me, because this is not something I say lightly.
The 2 year process of having 4 surgeries got to me. It broke me. I gave up. I was so diligent on my diet after the first one. Even the second surgery I thought of as just a minor setback and stayed the course. Somewhere between the third and fourth surgery I gave up hope. My belief I could ever be the athlete I once was was gone. My self confidence had taken a major hit. On top of that, I point blank got fat. It’s hard to admit, but I just didn’t like myself at this point.
Anyone that knows me knows I hold myself to a ridiculously high standard. I do it to a fault. It is one of the things that allowed me to get to the level I had achieved, but it also could reek havoc on my confidence when I could not achieve my own goals. Thats hard to admit, but in retrospect it’s true. Everyone likes to think they are supremely confident and nothing could take that from them. I would have liked to think that, but 4 surgeries and 3 failed attempts to comeback in between had robbed me of that confidence.
Through all this time I never missed a training session. I did what I could and coached the rest of the Refuge Barbell Crew the best that I could. I love the sport too much to be completely out of the game, but I just wanted to be able to compete at a high level. I wanted to take my spot amongst the pros that I worked so hard to earn. I just did not see it happening and it was a hard pill to swallow.
Opportunity Meets Determination
It’s now June 2015 and I am still in therapy from my 4th surgery. Progress is being made and I am just itching to be able to do more. I check my email one night and I had received an email about the possible venues for America’s Strongest Man. One of those venues was Atlanta in October. Geographically, this would be a great opportunity as Atlanta is a little over a 5 hour drive from where I live.
I Didn’t hear any definites on the location or date for a little while. I still kept the idea in the back of my mind as I did my therapy and my home exercises like it was my job. On July 3rd we returned from a family vacation and shortly after I received word that ASM (America’s Strongest Man) was going to be in Atlanta on October 31st.
I went for my follow up to the doctor a week later and he cleared me to start training. So here I am a little over three months from that date sitting at 288 lbs having done very little training the past three months and no full training for over two years. For whatever reason, something in me clicked and I said, “screw this”. I was tired of not doing what I loved. Tired of missing out on opportunities. Tired of not working toward a goal. So I decided I am going to go for it.
The diet started immediately. Everything was measured and weighed. Any foods that were not essential were cut out completely. My training went from zero to contest prep mode overnight. Maybe not a smart choice, but I was just ready to be back. To quote Mr. Mister, I guess you could say I was ready to “Take this broken wing and learn to fly again.”
Training progressed and the weight came off. I kept pushing a bit harder than I should have. I planned diligently and intelligently to find new exercises and methods to replace the things that my elbow could no longer do. I worked my active recovery twice as hard as I ever had. My numbers were nowhere near what they once were, but they were climbing for the first time in a while.
This went on for a while then while running a moderately heavy yoke my knee twinged. I finished my training for the day then put ice on it. The next day, it was swollen so I went to the chiropractor and he worked on my knee. It helped, but it was still swollen and painful. After two years of missing ASM for an elbow injury I was determined to not let anything stop me. So I trained around it the best I could. I only did things I deemed essential for preparing me for ASM. All squats were dropped and focus shifted more to being able to do the exact things I had to do at the show. Not the way I like to train, but trying to work around the best I could.
A couple of weeks passed and it’s still swollen. I went to my doc to get an MRI because I want to know if its ligament damage or if it’s something I can manage the pain and train through. I find out the ligaments and tendons look healthy, but I have bone contusions. He tells me I can train, but I have to wear a brace and it may be painful. So I just continue on.
The last month of my ASM prep was the bare minimum required to get as good as I can. Prioritizing recovery over training. I babied the knee the best I could while still getting good work in. I planned, I trained, and I did all I could to recover. All the while still losing weight at a rate of about 2 lbs a week. I was tired of excuses. I was tired of missing out. I knew I wouldn’t be a hundred percent, but I was determined to go. I was determined to take my place amongst the pros.
It is now one week out from the competition. I am sitting 14 lbs above the weight limit of 231 lbs. A little higher than I hoped, but manageable. I start my water and salt load. On Wednesday, two days before weigh ins, I was up to 247. A little bit panicked, but still staying the course. Salt drops from the regime on Wednesday and weight comes down. By Friday at 1:00 p.m I am sitting in Atlanta only 1 lb overweight and I have yet to even break a sweat. I sweat off one pound. Made me so dizzy I could barely walk, but I gathered myself and headed down for 2:00 p.m weigh ins. I made weight very easily on the competition scale as it was significantly lighter than mine. I had accomplished the first major hurdle. I got from 288lbs in mid july to 231 for weigh ins by October 30th. Now it was time to rest and rehydrate.
I awoke on competition day feeling pretty well after the water cut and was nervous but excited to get started.
Event 1: The Last Man Standing Log Press
This was the event that I was most nervous about but not for the reason you would think. The elbow was holding up surprisingly well on log press, but being as I push jerk, the knee was limiting my ability to explode. I was 50-50 on hitting the opener of 300, and when that opener got moved to 310 I knew it was going to be a shot in the dark. I warmed up trying to get the knee to loosen up and fire but not lock. I walked up to the log determined to give it all I could, but without good explosion I am not a strong enough strict presser to give 310 a ride. Disappointed with a zero, but not going to let it ruin my whole day.
Event 2: 815lb Yoke
Normally this is an event I am excited about. I have always been more athletic that strong so moving events have always been my strength. I am standing at the starting line not even 100 percent sure if my knee will survive 80 ft under that load. The whistle blows, I pick up the weight, and am on my way. About halfway down the course I can feel me knee wanting to buckle, but I am determined not to drop it as I feared I could not re pick it up. So I essentially stiff legged on the left side the last 40 ft. I made the finish line in a time a little over 20 seconds. For me that is about 8 full seconds off what I would deem acceptable, but I gritted it out and did all I could do.
Event 3: Car Deadlift
Not much to say here. It was heavy. Based on how hard I pulled and the fact that it didn’t budged I would put it around a million pound in hand. It was so heavy that all of the MiddleWeight Pros went and no one got a rep. After sending over six people to lift it to add a board to raise the height we were all asked to go again. This time only one man was able to muster a rep. Deadlift king Sean Demarinis. It was truly a “Sword in the Stone” moment. Just as pulling the sword from the stone made Arthur King, breaking that car off the ground ensured Sean his 2nd title. It was a point swing that there was no coming back from for anyone.
Event 4: Power Stairs
Two implements that weighed 400 lbs each for 5 stairs. Honestly did not feel that hard I was just slow and had a major bobble that cost me a whole lot of time.
Event 5: Atlas Stones
This event was one that had me worried with the knee. I was unable to train all the exercises that I would normally train to assist my atlas stone loading. Our stone weight was dropped from 380 to 360. I managed one measly rep and couldn’t get enough extension for the next two that I got up to the bar. Not thrilled about that one.
Keeping it in Perspective
Anyone that knows me knows that is not a performance that I am happy with, but this contest had to come with a change in perspective. I am not happy with where I am, but I am happy that I went and I put myself back out there. That is a big step for me. For a long time I wouldn’t go to anything if I couldn’t put up the numbers I deemed worthy of. I had this silly thought that putting a bad performance on my athletic resume would somehow diminish all that I had previously accomplished. That a bad performance would make me less of an athlete.
I began to view the comeback as a destination. The comeback is not a destination it is a journey. I let myself worry too much about the outcome and not about the process itself. My pride made me forget why I began this in the first place. I forgot about the fun. It’s not for fame or glory, but because I enjoy it. I worried too much about tarnishing my reputation to just go out and have fun.
So although the performance was terrible and I will fight tooth and nail everyday to be better. I am still glad I put myself out there and had some fun again. Competing at America’s Strongest Man is an opportunity that only a handful of people ever get. I am thankful and blessed to have that opportunity. I plan to be back next year with a whole year of training under my belt ready to compete for a spot on the podium. The only difference will be is that I have learned to find joy in the process and not just long for the result.
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