Pataskala powerlifter who 'found his thing' now competing on world stage at Special Olympics Games
Garrett Ford wants to get big.
When he approaches the 505-pound deadlift — grabbing the bar with his left hand, then his right, and planting his feet to the floor — getting bigger is all that's on his mind.
He worries that his arms are getting smaller. He's known as the Hulk. He can lift almost three times his body weight of 175 pounds.
Ford, a person with autism, is one of the best powerlifters pound for pound in the country.
And at 20 years old, he soon will compete in his biggest competition yet — the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi.
More than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries will compete at the games, which started Thursday and continue through March 21. Ford is one of two athletes from Ohio to compete this year, and the first athlete from Licking County ever to attend.
"This is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him," said Leah Yost, Ford's mother. "I never even imagined it would get to this level."
Ford began powerlifting when he was 16 years old.
At a scrawny 5-feet-7-inches and 115 pounds, most of his time was spent in his room on his iPod. Kids at school bullied Ford for his size and disability.
"I did not like being small," Ford said. "I was a wimp."
Yost had enrolled him in karate but noticed his instructor was passing him along without much effort from Ford.
"It wasn't fair to him or the other kids," Yost said. "I didn't want him to have any special treatment."
Then, Yost got an email. The Licking County Board of Developmental Disabilities was promoting a new adapted powerlifting class. Looking for a way to boost her son's confidence and keep him active, she signed him up.
Ford took off as soon as he started training, said John Wysocki, vice president of sports and programming at Special Olympics Ohio and Ford's powerlifting coach.
"He caught fire," he said. "Garrett emerged as a dedicated powerlifter."
During his first year on the team, Ford benchpressed 95 pounds and deadlifted 80 pounds. In the five years since then, his gains have increased significantly.
He put on 65 pounds of muscle. He consistently benches 300 pounds and deadlifts 495 pounds. His personal best deadlift was 505 pounds, a record he hopes to beat in Abu Dhabi.
Last summer, Ford dominated at the 2018 Special Olympic USA Games in Seattle, sweeping his weight class and bringing home three gold medals.
In the gym
It's 6 a.m., and Ford sits alone at the kitchen island. His mom and siblings won't be up for a couple more hours.
In the dimly lit kitchen, Ford pours himself a bowl of cereal before mixing up a glass of a pre-workout supplement to give him a boost of energy when lifting.
"This stuff helps me get big and stay stronger," Ford said, gulping down the pungent neon liquid. "And it helps me rage."
The rage, Ford explains in his deep yet soft voice, is the push he needs to get the bar up.
Soft blue light begins to fill the family room as Ford makes his way downstairs to the gym.
Yost said Ford is a high-functioning person with autism. He's able to do things for himself and live day-to-day without major issues.
Still, Yost and Ford's stepfather, Justin, said they don't expect Ford to ever live on his own (he has a tendency to forget things,) so they're working to furnish an apartment for him in their unfinished basement.
For now, the space holds Ford's workout equipment and some of his personal belongings.
A simple brown bookcase against the wall displays most of Ford's powerlifting memorabilia: an autographed Arnold Schwarzenegger bodybuilding encyclopedia, a picture with his Licking County powerlifting teammates, a second-place trophy and a box of all his medals.
Ford takes a seat in his recliner, turns up the heavy metal on his iPod and begins to rock back and forth.
The repetitive rocking is one symptom of autism that Yost notices in Ford. Social communication, like recognizing sarcasm or emotions in others, also can be a challenge for Ford.
It has led to some frustrating moments for Ford, he said.
He's thrown his weightlifting belt during competitions out of frustration. He struggles to understand the nuances of talking to his 13-year-old sister.
But other symptoms of his autism actually have benefited his powerlifting, Yost said, like his tendency to fixate on things and his repetitious routine.
Ford always struggled with math in school, but Yost said calculating the weights he needs to lift is no problem.
"Lifting has been so good for him," she said. "It's his thing; he finally found his thing."
He may be a force in the gym, but Ford is not an aggressive person.
He's a peacemaker. He loves playing Minecraft with his little brother. He adores his stocky little pitbull mix, Xenia.
Getting up from his recliner, Ford walks over to the bench and racks up the barbell. Today is arm day.
Starting with 50-pound plates, Ford does sets of arms curls. With each repetition, he adds more weight: 70 pounds... 90 pounds... 115 pounds...
He's deliberate, paying careful attention to his form. But the pre-workout is starting to kick in and the rage is building.
The reps speed up and Ford lifts the bar to the tempo of his music.
He growls as he pulls up the 170-pound bar. It's good, but not good enough for Ford. Clearly disappointed, Ford whispers to himself, "Just one more, just one more."
Ford wants to win gold. He'll tell you that silver isn't an option. But Wysocki said it's less about beating others than it is about competing against himself.
For Ford, Wysocki said, it's all about improvement.
"He's always chasing the next number," he said.
Saturdays at the Licking County Special Olympics Facility on Newark's west side are all about powerlifting.
Ford and eight other adapted powerlifters practice their skills every weekend at the facility. John Wysocki and his wife, Carrie, along with a handful of volunteers run the athletes through a full workout — cardio, strength training and powerlifting.
Individuals with intellectual disabilities have some of the highest rates of obesity, said Carrie Wysocki, Licking County Special Olympics coordinator. One of the group's priorities is not just training athletes for competition, she said, but also teaching them to live healthy lives.
Ford has been a prime example of that, the Wysockis said.
He works out six days a week. He encourages other athletes in the gym. He's considered a leader and ambassador in the program.
But Ford's performance in the gym isn't just an example to other adapted athletes. His success also makes a point to athletes everywhere that competing in the Special Olympics doesn't define him as a "special" athlete.
"What Garrett is showing everyone is he can compete in regular competitions, too," said John Wysocki.
In 2016, Ford placed second at the Midwest Mecca competition at Old School Gym in Pataskala, where he works out twice a week. Next year, he will compete at the Arnold Sports Festival.
Athletes with disabilities have historically been isolated from their typical peers, the Wysockis said. And while the Special Olympics' mission always has been to provide athletic opportunities for people of all abilities, Carrie Wysocki said, the international organization's focus is broadening.
The goal of the "Inclusion Revolution" is to change the perception of people with disabilities and make spaces more inclusive rather than segregated.
"In our generation, we've had to learn to see difference as a strength," Carrie Wysocki said.
Ford, she said, shows people that athletes of all abilities are capable of incredible things.
"It's not about eliminating the autistic features. It's not 'despite his disability.' It's calling it what it is," she said.
"He's not a disabled powerlifter. He's a powerlifter who happens to have a disability."
Ford's athleticism has earned him recognition on some of powerlifting's greatest stages.
On the Arnold Sports Festival's main stage in February, Arnold Schwarzenegger invited three of "his heroes" to show off their skills.
Ford was joined by Miles Taylor, a deadlifter with cerebral palsy, and Derick Carver, an Army veteran and amputee.
"These three hereoes that are about to come out here are absolutely extraordinary," Schwarzenegger told the crowd.
"Fitness is for everyone, and these athletes prove that," Matt Iseman, one of the event's emcees, added.
Two former Arnold Strongman Classic winners racked up 225 pounds for Ford to lift on stage. In front of a few hundred people, Ford began to yank up the bar. As he reached his tenth rep, Schwarzenegger called out, "That's enough! Stop right there!"
But Ford pulled up an eleventh rep anyway.
"You don't stop the Hulk, Governor," Iseman said.
The night before
On the eve of his departure for Abu Dhabi, Ford worked his way through a plateful of pepperoni and banana pepper pizza.
For everything he's anticipating about the games — meeting new people, competing in a foreign country, the possibility of beating his personal records — there's something dampening his excitement.
"I'm gonna miss my family," he said. "I don't want to talk about it."
When he competed in the USA Games in Seattle last summer, the Yosts worked tirelessly to raise money so their entire family could go watch Ford compete. This time, only Leah and Justin can make the trip.
Ford, Grace and Connor sat at the kitchen table and talked about homework, powerlifting and Grace's boyfriend. (Ford, the protective older brother that he is, was shocked to hear the news.)
After they ate, Grace snuck off to her bedroom to draw a picture of Ronnie Carter — one of Ford's favorite powerlifters — for him to take on his trip. Leah packed up Ford's protein powder in reusable bags and called him over to show him how to seal them closed.
"If I don't show him, he'll forget," she said.
It's not clear what the future holds for Ford when he returns from the World Games. Coming home might be his toughest challenge yet, John Wysocki said.
He hopes to become a personal trainer and help others get big like him. He would like to have a girlfriend (but maybe not, he said, since he doesn't want to be too busy). He will keep competing.
But where he will compete, John Wysocki said, is the question.
"He's pretty much topped out in the Special Olympics world," he said.
Ford is able to keep competing for Licking County Special Olympics, but his coaches and his family would like to see him compete in more regular competitions, too.
"He's got a lot of competition years to come," John Wysocki said. "What is going to be the next carrot for him to reach?"
With or without weights in hand, Ford is getting bigger. Bigger than he ever imagined.
And in the end his greatest lift may be showing the world that autism isn't too heavy to live the life he wants.