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Man with dwarfism rocks the bodybuilding scene, nicknamed the ‘Strongest Man in the World’

Like a flickering flame that refused to be extinguished, an unyielding fire burned within me. It seemed to infuse every muscle in my body with resolute strength. Sports became my catalyst for personal triumph, propelling me to break through barriers and etch my name on the global stage.

  • 11 months ago
  • July 3, 2023
7 min read
Despite being a person born with achondroplasia, Darío Villarroel has set national records for weightlifting. He competes globally and helps young people with disabilities at his gym. Despite being a person born with achondroplasia, Darío Villarroel has set national records for weightlifting. He competes globally and helps young people with disabilities at his gym. | Photo courtesy of Darío Villarroel's team
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Darío Villarroe, 42, grew up in Argentina, where he still resides. He takes part in high-performance sports like weightlifting and bodybuilding, competing all over the world. He attended the Paralympics in 2007, as well as the Rio Pan American Games, where he broke the record for weightlifting. Darío Villarroel is a person with achondroplasia, commonly known as dwarfism, a disability that affects the body’s growth. Nicknamed the ‘Strongest Man in the World,’ he is the only man able to lift four times his own body weight.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Achondroplasia is the most common form of short-limbed dwarfism. The word achondroplasia means “without cartilage formation.” Cartilage is a tough but flexible tissue that makes up much of the skeleton during early development. However, in people with achondroplasia the problem is not forming cartilage but converting it to bone (a process called ossification), particularly in the long bones of the arms and legs. Achondroplasia is similar to another skeletal disorder called hypochondroplasia, but the features of achondroplasia tend to be more severe.

JUJUY, Argentina — I stand about one and a quarter meters or four feet tall. Yet I defied the constraints of my stature and unleashed a passion for sports that transformed my life. Despite being a person with achondroplasia [commonly known as dwarfism], my dreams knew no bounds.

Growing up in Palpalá, Argentina, I never let obstacles hinder my aspirations. Through meticulous training and a disciplined daily routine, I relentlessly pursued my goal to be a bodybuilder. Eventually, I earned the nickname, “The Strongest Man in the World.”

Traveling to different corners of the earth, I captivated audiences and competed at the highest levels – a stark contrast to my early days when I did not even own proper weights. I remember improvising by fashioning makeshift weights using cans of sweet potatoes. Gradually, however, things began to change for me.

Read more Paralympic and other-abled athlete stories at Orato World Media 

I felt like I awoke from a slumber when I discovered bodybuilding

Like a flickering flame that refused to be extinguished, an unyielding fire burned within me. It seemed to infuse every muscle in my body with resolute strength. Sports became my catalyst for personal triumph, propelling me to break through barriers and etch my name on the global stage.

Before this journey began, my doctors recommended I take on physical activity to enhance my body and mind. Rehabilitation became a path to holistic well-being. Back then, information remained scarce. I did not know much about my condition or my own body.

By engaging a quest for self-discovery, I shattered preconceived notions I had about myself. When the possibilities appeared, I felt as though I had been asleep all my life and began to gradually awake.

I joined the Argentine National Team for individuals of short stature in bodybuilding and competed in several worldwide tournaments. I even broke records. Then, I faced a major turning point. 

My dedication earned me the nickname “Strongest Man in the World”

When a director from the Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness extended an invitation for me to compete, I felt overwhelmed with joy. To be recognized for my efforts felt amazing. The Mr. Universe Wabba Acapulco championship presented a platform for me to showcase my hard work. Immense anxiety consumed me at the thought of stepping on a stage with so many people in attendance.

I competed for the first time in 2003 in the conventional category with people who had no disabilities. I remember staring out into the crowd and making eye contact with the audience. It proved an incredible moment. I won my first tournament in the province of Jujuy, in a regional competition, where I lifted 110 kilograms (242 pounds). When they announced my name, applause swept through the room as I stared in disbelief. 

Through dedication, perseverance, and meticulous preparation, I paved a path for myself within the world of athletics. Each step I took propelled me further into my journey toward self-improvement.

Surrounded by towering giants, doubts plagued my mind

The very first time I competed in a tournament, I felt like a character from the anime Dragon Ball Z. Surrounded by towering giants, doubts plagued my mind. I questioned what I was doing there, and I felt like an imposter amongst the other athletes. I weighed 45 kilos (99 pounds) and yet I hoisted an impressive weight of 110 kilos. The crowd erupted in cheers as tears streamed down my face.

I felt overcome with excitement and could barely believe what was happening. Then came the national tournament, where I set a record in my country, lifting 125 kilos in the conventional category.

Darío and his mother, who always motivated him throughout his career. | Photo courtesy of Darío Villarroel’s team

All of this awakened a passion within me. An urgency erupted, to seek my means of expression through physical feats. A shift occurred in my mind right then and there on the stage. I began to contemplate new ways to enhance the quality of my life.

As I prioritized my well-being, I began to strive to look and feel my best. Moreover, I recognized the importance of preparing for my golden years, envisioning a future where I would not heavily depend on others for support.

The title I secured not only brought glory to Jujuy, my hometown, but also elevated Argentina to new heights on the global stage. The ecumenical nature of the event united participants from different categories, featuring prominent figures from the world of bodybuilding and fitness.

Joining the Paralympics movement in Argentina 

My interactions with fellow competitors took on a social nature, transcending rivalry. Rather than fixating on who to outperform, my focus remained on surpassing my own limitations. It was through my disability that I discovered a place within the Paralympic movement. It ignited a flame of hope for my future.

At that time, nobody in Argentina seemed to engage in weightlifting at that level. In other countries around the world, more competitions and competitors existed. Since there were no events to register for at home, I persistently advocated for the sport. My determination paid off, and I was sent to Mar del Plata to undergo a test and demonstrate my lifting capacity.

A poster for the documentary “The Strongest Man in the World”, about Darío’s life. | Photo courtesy of Darío Villarroel’s team

I successfully passed the pre-selection phase and became the first Paralympic weightlifting athlete in my region. After that, I began preparing for the 2007 Rio competition known as the Pan American Games. I had the honor of being a pioneering athlete representing my country in in the sport.

In my category, I became a favorite and the crowd cheered for me enthusiastically. However, during a study conducted to assess my limitations, it was confirmed that while my technique and overall movements were fine, my grip presented an issue.

Due to my disability, I have very short fingers. I could not fully encircle or grasp the bar. Although I was allowed to participate in the competition, the officials informed that even if I won, I would not be eligible for classification due to this issue.

Overcoming the hardships and prejudice and becoming a role model 

We filed a complaint with the organization, urging them to reconsider. They insisted I could only participate in an exhibition capacity for the Pan American Games. It felt like a devastating blow, but I pushed forward.

Eventually, I found myself competing against the best athletes from the American continent, each with their respective challenges and disabilities. Many participants competed in their wheelchairs. Despite my grip limitation, I managed to lift an impressive 152 kilograms (335 pounds), surpassing the competition. I received many invitations to compete worldwide after that. 

Throughout this incredible career, I have faced mistreatment and prejudice. Through it all, the unwavering support of my mother sustained me. She urged me to never stop dreaming. Her words fortified my resolve. Today, I run a gym where children facing circumstances like mine, and those with other disabilities, come together. I forge close bonds with them, providing unwavering encouragement.

Recently, a documentary titled “The Strongest Man in the World” captured the story of my life. It was crafted with immense respect and love. The documentary chronicles my journey of relentless improvement and the unwavering spirit it took to overcome obstacles.

When I look book, I know I did what I had to do, and everything fell into place. The film premiered at the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival of Bafici in 2023. It felt incredible to watch my life story along with everyone in the audience. Being able to call myself a role model for others means more than anything in the world to me. 

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