When thinking about a strongman competition it’s easy to conjure up in the mind a picture of what the contestants would look like.
In all likelihood nowhere in the frame of that photo would you find an image of 43-year-old Ryan Rhodes.
Yet, when competitors gather Nov. 12-14 in Daytona Beach, Fl., for the Official Strongman Games the Statesboro resident will be there competing.
With his weight ranging anywhere from 230 to 265 pounds the 6-foot even Rhodes will be one of the smallest, if not the smallest, men in the field. He will compete in the 40+ Masters group.
According to the Official Strongman Games website there will be nine weight divisions, including women, with competitors coming from 22 countries. There are 31 competitors in Rhodes’ age group.
The contest consists of five events: log press, car walk, deadlifts ladder, carry and drag, sandbag toss and Atlas stones.
In addition to not fitting the stereotypical strong man image Rhodes also offers himself up as an example that a potentially debilitating heart condition does not necessarily mean you are limited in leading a normal life.
In 2015 Rhodes, now a retired government contractor, was diagnosed with the rare Stokes-Adams Syndrome, which, in layman’s terms, is a condition where the individual suddenly feels faint and may pass out. It is caused by a rapid change in the heart rate.
It affects how much blood flows to the brain because the heart either beats too slowly or too quickly. While Stokes-Adams is obviously a serious condition, it can be treated medically but the definitive treatment is the insertion of a permanent cardiac pacemaker, which Rhodes chose to do.
A pacemaker is a device which sends regular electrical impulses through wires attached to your heart. Medical websites say prognosis for Stokes-Adams is very good once a pacemaker is installed.
Rhodes began competing in strong man competition several years ago when he lived in Washington state. When he was diagnosed with Stokes-Adams, he said it was a devastating blow.
“After dying six times over the course of a day an electrophysiologist implanted a pacemaker in my chest and ordered me to never press more than 40 pounds again,” Rhodes said. “As a veteran strongman and overhead specialist I was crushed, but I refused to give in to his orders.”
It took Rhodes two years after the surgery and a great deal of research as to what he could do safely without damaging the (pacemaker) leads (wires) to his heart to regain his strength and ability to compete again at a high level.
In addition Rhodes also had to convince people he was not and had never been a user of steroids.
“I compete in Middleweight, Open and Masters classes depending on the competition,” Rhodes said. “I’m usually by far the smallest guy at the Open and Masters shows.
“I’ve never used steroids of any kind,” Rhodes said. “If I did anything like that I could risk my heart becoming enlarged and the pacemaker not functioning properly.
“I need the pacemaker because Stokes-Adams causes my heart to slow to a stop up to three times a minute even when I’m sleeping. When I first broke the news lots of people, including some in my own family, were quick to say, ‘Told you he was using steroids. There’s no way he could be that strong without them, etc.’ That really hurt.”
A resident of Statesboro for about a year and a half he and his family moved here due to his wife Marci’s job with a pharmaceutical company.
Training at the Y
Training and a proper training site in a small town could have been a problem, Rhodes said, but he owes a deep gratitude of thanks to the Statesboro YMCA and its executive director Hannah Beggs.
“I couldn’t do this without the support of the Y and Hannah,” Rhodes said. “They have been wonderful in helping me.
“They’ve given me a place to train and they let me store my equipment there which is a big help. The Y staff is very supportive. I think the Y is a tremendous asset to this community and it’s something people in the community need to support and take advantage of what it offers.”
Rhodes also made some changes in his diet. He is a vegetarian who eats a lot of fish and, among other things, edible insects such as worms and crickets.
“Americans, unlike the rest of the world, think that’s crazy,” Rhodes said. “Insects are high in protein and metabolic energy and they’re easy on the stomach.
“I admit doing this is borderline reckless and it’s hard on my wife,” Rhodes said. “She’s concerned but she knows I have a life to lead.
“It’s walking like life is a glass floor. You walk over it and slip and something (the pacemaker) catches you.”