If someone had told Sylvester Vermillion 10 years ago that he would someday be a world champion powerlifter, he probably would have laughed at them. The 45-year-old autistic father of two, who also suffers from severe depression, anxiety and PTSD, made his dreams come true last month when he earned two gold and a pair of silver medals at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Vermillion grew up in Joliet, Illinois, a city of 150,000 some 30 miles southwest of Chicago. Vermillion said he enjoyed a fairly normal childhood there, but he always knew there was something different about him.
“I was diagnosed when I was young, but my parents didn’t tell me,” he said. “I knew there was something different, because I was always in special education classes.”
After struggling to keep up with his friends in typical youth sports like football, basketball and track, Vermillion decided to try his hand with his school’s Special Olympics program as a seventh grader, a decision that, sadly, he would come to regret.
“My dad made fun of me because he didn’t understand that even if you had a special need, like ADHD or autism, you could compete in Special Olympics,” Vermillion said. “He thought it was just for handicapped or people with Down syndrome. So, I stopped pursuing it because, as a kid, I didn’t want to be laughed at.”
And so Vermillion’s athletic career may have ended, if not for a twist of fate.
More than 20 years after his first aborted stint with Special Olympics, Vermillion signed his two children up for the program while living in Oklahoma. After moving to Montana with his now ex-wife, the children continued their involvement with the program in Columbia Falls and it got Vermillion to thinking.
“I was in the process of having my diagnosis reconfirmed and I would see my kids out there having fun,” he said. “I thought to myself, I can do this.”
And so the journey began.
Vermillion started slowly, playing on a Miracle League softball team with his kids and later joined a local Special Olympics basketball team. It was his coach there that introduced him to the Kalispell Krushers, an adult Special Olympics team.
At 6-foot-4 and 440 pounds, Vermillion has always been an imposing figure. It was that size that helped lead him to a job delivering furniture in Chicago well before his move to Columbia Falls. There, he would make short work of moving large objects around the city. From couches to beds, chairs, dressers and more, Vermillion was the man who could get them to where they needed to be. Picking up and moving objects well over 150 pounds was an everyday thing, but when he was prompted to give powerlfting a try at the Special Olympics Montana Games, Vermillion said he thought the sport was not for him.
“Everyone told me I should try powerlifting, but I didn’t think it was for me. I didn’t think I was strong enough for it,” he said. “I got talked into trying it and I wound up liking it and it all started there.”
That was six years and many medals ago.
Vermillion said he surprised even himself at that first powerlifting competition, squatting 375 pounds and deadlifting 390 before asking the officials if his performance was good enough for him to stop. He said people there found it hard to believe he had never competed in the sport before. Vermillion had found his sport.
Vermillion found that he was a natural and he poured himself into his training. His first goal was to become the best powerlifter in Montana, a feat that he accomplished in only his second year. After that, he set his eye on the national and, eventually, the world games.
It didn’t take long for Vermillion to surpass his coaches. It eventually got to the point where Vermillion was lifting more weight than his coaches were able to safely spot for him, and so, in 2015, he decided to make a change.
Vermillion had come across Whitefish Thunder coach Mark Kuhr, a former powerlifter and bodybuilder at meets and was hoping Kuhr could help him advance his powerlifting career. He approached Kuhr about the possibility, but Kuhr’s tutelage came with a stipulation.
“I had been doing things like watching Youtube videos trying to find ways to train myself to be better,” Vermillion said. “I approached Kuhr at the area games and asked if he could help me improve and he simply said ‘only if you join my team.’ So I did.”
Vermillion said it was not easy leaving the Krushers after two years, but when he told coach Terri Siefke that he wanted the chance to advance in his sport, she encouraged him to chase his dreams.
The improvement with his new team and coach was almost immediate as Vermillion continued to work toward his goal of the national and world games.
In 2018, Vermillion took his first big step towards the World Games, dominating the Montana Special Olympics State games, winning the deadlift, bench press, squat and combined powerlifting titles.
The success continued at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, where he won gold in the deadlift and combination and silver in the bench press and squat. He had done it. Vermillion was headed to the World Games.
Now, the real training began. Vermillion was practicing four days a week in preparation for the World Games and, when the time finally came, he packed up his medicine pouch made for him by his ex-wife, a number of prized rocks he had collected around the Flathead, locks of his children’s hair and a stuffed animal that had belonged to his friend and Krushers teammate Chrissy Siefke, who passed away 2018 – all good luck charms he hoped would bring him success in Abu Dhabi. A 14-hour flight later, and Vermillion was ready for the opening ceremonies.
“The opening ceremonies were amazing. There were so many people there. The opening ceremonies at nationals didn’t even compare,” he said. “There were 198 countries represented and there were people everywhere. It was overwhelming how much time and effort they put into it.”
Powerlifting was one of the last competitions of the games, so Vermillion had nearly a week to take in his surroundings before getting down to business. Vermillion said that competition was tough, but he did the best he could and he was happy with his performance when he was done, but the results were not posted right away.
Vermillion said he spoke with Kuhr after the competition and told him that he was content with his performance.
“I said maybe I could have done a little more, but I was just tired,” Vermillion said. “I said I was proud of my effort and he responded with ‘What does it feel like to be a world champ?’ I thought he was pulling my leg, but it was true.”
Vermillion had done it again, this time winning gold in the combined (495 kg or about 1,091 pounds) and the deadlift (205 kg). He also lifted 175 in the squat and 115 in the bench press, both earning him silver medals.
“It was surreal,” he said. “I’ve now done everything I set out to do.”
So, what’s next for the former furniture mover turned world champion? Vermillion says he is getting ready for another run at the World Games in four year, this time in Berlin, Germany, but it might be a long road.
Vermillion says he hyper extended his knee while training for the World Games and competed without giving himself the proper time to heal. He said the pain is becoming pretty intense and he may be forced to only bench press this season while he tries to lose the 100 pounds needed before he can have the surgery to repair his knee.
“I plan to be there in Berlin,” he said. “I know it will be hard, but I’ve taken the hard road before.”
As for his unlikely road to success, Vermillion hopes that it will inspire others to never give up on their dreams.
“Follow your dreams and just do it. Don’t keep telling yourself that you can’t do it,” he said. “I’m 45 years old, I only started doing this six years ago and I never thought I would be where I am now. I just kept working and listening to the positive people in my life and now I am a world champion.”