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Clay Stephens: Gymnast born with one pectoral muscle competes at Commonwealth Games

A gymnast has overcome six surgeries, three ACL injuries and a rare birth defect to become one of the faces of Australia’s Commonwealth Games team.

Clay Stephens, 25, was told at a young age that he would never be able to participate in a range of upper-body sports, including tennis, swimming and gymnastics after he contracted Poland syndrome.

The condition sees children born with missing or underdeveloped muscles on one side of the body — usually in the chest, shoulder, arm, or hand. The Aussie has only one pectoral muscle, which has a significant impact on his arm strength.

Undeterred by medical experts and his own hindrance, Stephens persevered 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 mother and father took me to the doctor and he told my parents that he is missing his chest muscles. At that point you have baby fat and it’s not that noticeable,” he told the Daily Mail Australia.

‘We didn’t know exactly what it was, but as you get older it becomes more noticeable and the doctor asks more questions. My parents asked what it means and the doctors said he will be safe and sound, he will just have a hard time doing certain things.’

Clay Stephens has overcome a rare condition called Polish Syndrome, in which a child is born without a muscle on one side of the body - in his case his pectoral muscle

Clay Stephens has overcome a rare condition called Polish Syndrome, in which a child is born without a muscle on one side of the body – in his case his pectoral muscle

The Adelaide-born athlete was repeatedly told as a child that he “didn’t expect much” from his athletics after being born with the genetic condition.

He said his parents always pushed him to pursue anything he wanted: tennis, football, and swimming.

“They said I wouldn’t excel 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 he fell in love with and excelled even more surprisingly, despite missing a muscle critical to its success.

Gymnastics South Australia went to Stephens’ school and lured him in by sending a letter in the mail asking him to try for the local gym.

“I went and gave it a tear and loved it. Within six months I was immediately in the elite program. Then they would start cutting people, but I kept cutting. It came down to five of us,’ he said.

Stephens persisted in sports such as swimming and gymnastics, despite his doctors telling him he would never excel

Stephens persisted in sports such as swimming and gymnastics, despite his doctors telling him he would never excel

‘I played football at a high level at the time and had to make a choice between football and gymnastics. Honestly, the moment my pecs didn’t come into the equation at all, it was just what I enjoyed more.

‘In retrospect I probably should have chosen football, then I would have paid more.’

He then decided to take up a scholarship offer at Illinois University in the United States after watching the Australian Institute of Sport slowly drop its funding and positions for gymnasts.

“The training environment was a lot better. The support may not have been that great 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 didn’t really want, but it was a free course. A $250,000 education.’

The 25-year-old said he has to be creative when relying on upper body strength because he only has one pectoral muscle.

The 25-year-old said he has to be creative when relying on upper body strength because he only has one pectoral muscle.

The path to the Commonwealth Games presented more challenges than Poland’s syndrome, which saw Stephens sustain a series of career-threatening injuries.

He has overcome three ACLs, an MCL and meniscus injuries, which together required six surgeries.

The 25-year-old said those hurdles combined with his birth defect have provided further motivation to represent his country.

Stephens joins a talented Australian gymnastics team with a big shot at a medal.

He recently finished second in the All-Round category at the Australian Championships – and expects to help the team chase gold in front of a hostile English crowd.

“I’m super pumped to see what the vibe is like. Whether they’re cheering or jeering, they’ll do me a favour,’ Stephens said.

“It’s going to be exciting, we’re not the most loved team in the arena, so we might as well be the most hated.”

Stephens and the Aussie team will be looking for a Commonwealth Games medal in Birmingham during the opening days of the competition

Stephens and the Aussie team will be looking for a Commonwealth Games medal in Birmingham during the opening days of the competition

The Adelaidean said he is constantly approached 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 have been reached by many more people than I thought. At first I thought I was the only person in the world who had it, but I’ve been approached by girls and guys who thanked me for talking about it, asking questions, and for advice,” Stephens said.

“It’s nice for me to get those messages and now they know other people have it. Also, I’ve torn my ACL three times, had six surgeries. That overcoming is so important. What I want to emphasize is that things can happen to you, but it’s how you deal with it and how you move on. If these are your goals and you are passionate about them, then nothing can stop you.

“Yes, injuries, the diagnosis of disability is a roadblock, but it’s never something you can’t get through if you’re passionate and your dreams are strong enough.

“Through the tough times you learn so much about yourself. The difficult times are a very useful companion in times of success.’

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