COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — 18-year-old Stephen Adkins is one of those people who radiates joy through the halls of Olentangy high school.
But his easy-going nature doesn’t mean things are easy.
“Being autistic I can sometimes be confused of some stuff like I might have to have repeats of some things,” he explained. “I’m still into that improvement stage.”
Part of improving is challenging yourself. So last year Stephen took on a new challenge: wrestling.
“First year during junior year it was kinda hard because I was learning and it was my first time,” he said.
It went beyond simply learning maneuvers and rules. To be eligible to compete, Stephen needed to go from 365 pounds to 285.
“His main goal was to get down to that so we could get him a match at the end of the year, which we did,” said Olentangy wrestling head coach Dennis Lyberger. “I guess phenomenal would be the way to put it.”
Stephen was on his way to making the varsity squad; but when COVID-19 hit, there was worry without wrestling the pounds would return.
Instead, while everyone saw Stephen getting physically stronger, he had also found his inner strength. So during quarantine, he worked on his own and lost even more weight.
“When he first came to us he really thrived on structure; and now, I think through wrestling, and a lot of different adventures that he’s kinda done, he’s become more relaxed and is not so stressed out about the every day that we go through,” said Brock Walden, a math and science teacher at Olentangy who works with special needs students like Stephen. “His maturity overall has been such an amazing thing to watch. He’s grown. He’s an advocate for himself, which wasn’t always the case. But he’s really become an advocate for himself, and stands up for himself, and stands up for his friends and peers as well, which has been an amazing thing to see.”
“I started out at like 356 – if so maybe 360, and this year I’m now 265,” Stephen said. ” It was basically working hard, and always keep going at it and then now I’m here!”
In his senior year, Stephen wrestled in every varsity match.
“It’s like a dream come true to be able, for somebody like him to be able to do that,” said Lyberger, who has coached wrestling for more than 40 years and has worked with multiple special-needs students. “I think those kinds of kids thrive with it because it gives them something to be motivated for, something to look forward to and it gives them a sense of purpose.”
“I think he’s really been inspiring to people as well,” Brock added. “Like you know when you look around kids just gush over Stephen and how much weight he’s lost and the transformation that he’s made. It’s just been amazing to see.”
When asked what he wants people to see when they meet him, Stephen’s answer has nothing to do with wrestling or his weight-loss journey.
“I’m a senior at Olentangy. I’m always the kind person that you like to see,” he said with a shoulder shrug. “Kindness is always my thing.”