A gymnast has endured six surgeries, three cruciate ligament injuries and a rare birth defect to become one of the faces of Australia’s Commonwealth Games team.
25-year-old Clay Stephens was told from a young age that after being diagnosed with Poland Syndrome he would never be able to compete in a range of upper body sports including tennis, swimming and gymnastics.
The condition sees children who are born with missing or underdeveloped muscles on one side of the body — usually in the chest, shoulder, arm, or hand. The Aussie only has one pectoral muscle, which significantly affects their arm strength.
Undeterred by medical experts and his own obstacles, Stephens continued and competed in every sport he could – before finding his passion in the gym.
“We didn’t know until I was three years old. I had a cold, my mom and dad took me to the doctor and he mentioned to my parents that he was missing his breast. At the time you have baby fat and it’s not that noticeable,” he told Chron Australia.
“We didn’t really know what it was, but as we get older it becomes more obvious and the doctor asks more questions. My parents asked what that means and the doctors said he’ll be fine and fine, he’ll just have trouble doing certain things.
Clay Stephens has overcome a rare condition called Poland Syndrome, in which a child is born without a muscle on one side of his body – in his case his pectoral muscle
The Adelaide-born athlete was repeatedly told as a child to “not expect much” from his athletics after being born with the genetic condition.
He said his parents always pushed him to do whatever he wanted, play tennis, soccer and swimming competitions.
“They said I wasn’t very good at upper body sports – tennis, swimming and gymnastics – which is funny because those were the three sports I was doing at the time,” Stephens said.
It was gymnastics that he fell in love with and surprisingly excelled at, despite lacking a muscle critical to his success.
Gymnastics South Australia visited Stephen’s school and lured him with a letter in the mail asking him to try himself for the local gym.
“I tried it and was amazed. Within six months I was straight into the elite program. Then they would cut people, but I just kept cutting. There were five of us,” he said.
Stephens persisted in upper body sports like swimming and gymnastics, despite his doctors telling him he never excelled
“Back then I played football at a high level and had to choose between football and gymnastics. Honestly my chest didn’t come into the equation at all at the time, it was just what I enjoyed more.
“In hindsight, I probably should have chosen football, it would have brought me more.”
He then decided to accept an offer for a scholarship to Illinois University in the United States after watching the Australian Institute of Sport slowly cut its funding and job opportunities for gymnasts.
“The training environment was much better. Support may not have been quite as good in terms of the team around us, but we had a team of 20, doctors, nutritional health, recovery centers.
“I had to study, which I really didn’t want to do, but it was a free education. A $250,000 education.’
The 25-year-old said he had to be creative when relying on upper body strength as he only had one chest
The road to the Commonwealth Games presented more challenges than Poland Syndrome, which saw Stephens suffer a series of career-threatening injuries.
He has overcome three ACLs, one MCL and meniscal injuries requiring six surgeries in total.
The 25-year-old said these hurdles, combined with his birth defect, are another motivation to represent his country.
Stephens joins a talented Australian gymnastics team with a good chance of a medal.
He recently finished second in the all-around category at the Australian Championships – and expects to help the team chase gold in front of a hostile English crowd.
“I’m really excited about the atmosphere. Whether they cheer or boo, they’re going to do me a favor,” Stephens said.
“It’s going to be exciting, we’re not the most popular team in the arena so we might as well be the most hated.”
Stephens and the Australian team will be looking for a Commonwealth Games medal in the opening days of the competition in Birmingham
The Adelaidean said he is constantly contacted by other people suffering from Poland Syndrome and believes his story of overcoming the defect will be a legacy that will last longer than any Commonwealth Games success.
“I was approached by a lot more people than I thought. I initially thought I was the only person in the world who had it, but I’ve been contacted by girls and guys thanking you for talking about it, asking me questions and asking for advice,” Stephens said .
“It’s nice for me to get these messages and now they know other people have them. I also tore my cruciate ligament three times and had six surgeries. Overcoming this is so important. What I want to emphasize is that things can happen to you, but it depends on how you deal with them and how you move forward. If these are your goals and you are passionate about them, then nothing will stop you.
“Yes, injuries, being diagnosed with a disability is an obstacle, but it’s never something you can’t overcome if you’re passionate and your dreams are strong enough.
“Through the difficult times, you will learn so much about yourself. The hard times are a really useful companion in times of success.’