Former Bishop's Stortford High School student Ollie Clarke becomes youngest person ever to compete in UK's Strongest Man
Christmas could have a different feel in many households this year due to the pandemic, but at least one tradition is set to be maintained – UK's Strongest Man will be on our television screens.
And one of the 16 muscle men battling it out for the crown across a series of jaw-dropping events in a gruelling three-day competition will be history-maker Ollie Clarke.
The former Bishop's Stortford High School and Richard Whittington Primary School pupil became the youngest competitor to qualify for the annual showdown after winning the Under-23 UK's Strongest Man in Southampton in March at the age of 19.
The 5ft 9in athlete, who weighs in at 110kg, was in Belfast at the weekend taking part in the biggest event of his life, which had to be held behind closed doors due to coronavirus restrictions.
Viewers will be able to see how Clarke – who recently qualified as a personal trainer and is looking to set up his own business – fared when Channel 5 broadcasts the highlights over the festive period.
"The goal this year was to get there. Normally you go to a comp and you want to win it, but, for me, I just wanted to get there. Now I'm there I want to do as well as I can," said Clarke when the Indie met up with him at Koru Gym in Bishop's Stortford the day before he flew out to Northern Ireland's capital.
"It's a three-day competition with a lot of different events so it's hard to tell who'll do well. This year, with the Covid situation, training for everyone hasn't been as good as it can be, with gyms having been shut and that sort of thing.
"I want to enjoy the experience. After this year, the goal would be to come top three or maybe even win it."
Clarke first joined a gym when he was 11 in order to do some bodybuilding and get a bit bigger, which also helped when it came to playing rugby for TBSHS.
The teenager has now been doing strongman competitions for two or three years. He previously did powerlifting and went to the world championships in Italy when he was 15.
Fancying a change and having always wanted to do strongman, he entered London's Strongest Man as a novice at the age of 17 and won it, which gave him the bug.
And his under-23 UK triumph in the spring, which earned him his place in the record books, came at the third time of asking.
"You get a lot of adrenaline from the competition. And if you do well after putting all of the work in it's a good feeling," said Clarke.
"It was the third time I'd done the under-23s. The first year I came 10th and the second year I came fourth. Winning it was my goal for the whole year of training and finally it paid off, so I was happy with that.
"The people that do strongman are very supportive of each other and everybody says well done."
Clarke lives at home in Little Hallingbury with mum Tara, dad Alastair and 15-year-old sister Rosie, who goes to Bishop's Stortford College. His girlfriend Maddie, 20, works in IT.
Sadly they and all of the other competitors' families and friends, along with strongman fans, had to stay at home while the event took place at the weekend, but they were there in spirit.
And Clarke has received plenty of invaluable backing from his Swindon-based coach Laurence Shahlaei, a former Europe's Strongest Man winner and multiple entrant in the World's Strongest Man who he met on the circuit.
"My family help a lot with my meals, my training and everything. They're very supportive," said Clarke.
"I've also had a lot of help from my coach, who's supported me a lot and helped me get there.
"He sends me all my programmes because he lives quite far away and then I send him videos of my lifts after every session, and then he helps me perfect my technique."
That technique will have been put to the ultimate test in Belfast when he and his 15 fellow competitors slugged it out. Four men get eliminated at the end of each of the first two days to leave eight in the final.
The tests of strength include pulling two artic lorries strapped to you with a harness as fast as possible over 20 metres; making a big truck, which is attached to a winch, come towards you as quickly as you can; the silver dollar deadlift with a starting weight of almost half a tonne; and running 20 metres with a yoke on your back with big railway sleepers weighing 450kg attached.
And don't forget the legendary Atlas stones, ranging from 100kg to 185kg, which competitors have to race to haul up onto high platforms.
"It's a brutal competition because there's 15 or 16 events in total over three days. Normally you'd get five events in a day and you'd be ruined the next day for a comp, but this is three days in a row," said Clarke, who used to weigh 136kg before dropping a bit to get fitter and faster at certain events and become more of an all-rounder. "Every strongman really has their best events and their worst events, so it's about trying to make your worst events not as bad.
"For me, squatting's my best and favourite event. I'm quite short whereas if you've got a 6ft 5in person they've got a long way to come down.
"There is a car squat in the final, so if I did get to the final then that event might go well for me."
Clarke would have loved to have his family and girlfriend supporting him at the event, but he said the absence of a crowd had plusses and minuses.And he is urging everyone at home to put their feet up and enjoy the spectacle when the competition airs on the box this Christmas.
"The crowd can give you a lot of adrenaline, but when you're lifting you don't actually notice them as you're just focused on the event," said Clarke, who is sponsored by Silverback Gymwear and CNP Supplements.
"And as they're filming it you know you've got a crowd because people are going to eventually be watching it. It's annoying because it would be a big thing to have everyone there supporting and to have your family there, but this year it can't be.
"There are all different kinds of events and it's really good to watch at Christmas.
"The competition's good as well because it's easy for people to understand. Lifting a car is easier to follow than having weight on a bar, which makes it easier to watch."