Larry Ledford was gearing up to play in a baseball tournament when he felt a terrible pain in his arm.
His arm had been killing him for a while, so he decided to go to the doctor for a cortisone shot. The doctor agreed but wanted to perform an X-ray first.
It turned out that Larry’s arm was in much worse shape than he knew. The X-ray showed a bone that looked like a sponge.
Larry wouldn’t be joining his Devil Dogs in the tournament — he had chondrosarcoma bone cancer.
He underwent surgery in 2010 and had his withered bone replaced with a cadaver bone. The doctor told him that he could kiss his days of baseball goodbye.
“He said that I need to understand that I might be able to shake somebody's hand, cut up a steak or do little things around the house like opening doors, but that would be the extent of it,” Larry said.
The diagnosis triggered a seven-year spiral in which Larry wound up “losing everything.” He lost his home and his fencing business and wondered how he would take care of his family. And all the while, he walked around with his hand in his pocket, embarrassed by his limp arm.
“I was crying myself to sleep, losing everything,” he said. “And I'm a headstrong guy.”
Then one night, he had a fateful conversation with his mother.
“My mom, one night she saw her baby struggling and losing everything and we had a long, godly talk and she said, ‘Son, if you find the willpower, God will give you the strength — you just got to find that willpower and start pushing yourself,’” he recalled.
Not long after their conversation, Larry’s mother died. He was devastated. But his deepest source of pain would soon become his greatest source of strength.
He had a new mission in life: make his mom proud and prove that faith and determination “can move mountains.”
He picked himself up, harnessed his mother’s words and joined a gym.
Always an athlete, Larry’s bone cancer had reduced him to a shadow of his former self.
“One day I was trying to bench the bar and it was all I could do to get it up,” he said. “And there were three girls in front of me and they were pointing at me, and they didn't realize I was watching them in the mirror, but they were pointing at me laughing at me, making fun of me because, you know, here's a grown man benching the 45-pound bar and struggling.”
He had many such moments, he said, but he was undeterred. With years of training, Larry grew stronger.
One day, he walked into the house and told his wife, “Honey, I’m too strong not to be able to break some kind of record with an arm that I was told I wouldn't be able to use.” His wife agreed.
He rushed to Google and began searching for weightlifting world records. He passed over bench press and squat and deadlift, but one in particular caught his eye — curling.
He told his wife, “I can beat that. I’m pretty sure I can beat that.”
Larry’s goal? Break the Georgia state record for the strict curl.
He later learned of a world-level weightlifting competition in Erie, Pennsylvania, and contacted the event organizer, a guy named Paul.
Larry messaged him on Facebook and received a disheartening response.
“He said, ’In order to go to the world, you're supposed to finish in the top three at state and top three at nationals, and you've never competed,’” Larry recalled.
But after telling his story and offering to send videos, Paul reluctantly agreed to waive the requirements. He told Larry, “You got one heck of a story, and I will leave you with this: if you can't lift what you say you can lift, don't come.”
In 2017, Larry hopped in his car and headed north. He had no sponsors, no coaches and no team.
“Right when I walked in the door, I turned around, walked out and called my wife,” he said. “I said, “Honey, you know me, I don’t get intimidated, but I'm overwhelmed right now.”
After a pep talk from his wife, Larry walked back in.
He recognized a guy he had connected with online, John Cooper, a six-time strict curl champion, who befriended Larry and let him warm up with his team.
As Larry was warming up, he overheard other competitors scoff, “Who’s this guy?” But they quickly changed their tune once they noticed the weight.
It was showtime.
After two official lifts, Larry went up for his final attempt. He shut his eyes, began the lift and prayed. The weight went up “smooth as can be,” he said.
Unaware of the rankings, he walked off the stage thinking to himself, “I got top ten. I really think I got top ten.”
He had done better than crack the top ten.
Paul, the event organizer, came up and put his arm around Larry. He said, “Like I told you before, you got one hell of a story. Congratulations, you're the world champion.”
“I just started bawling,” Larry said. He couldn’t believe it.
“You heard me right,” Paul said. “You're the world champion.”
He won World for his age and weight class and at the same time broke two Georgia state records with the 132.2-pound lift.
That day marked a turning point in Larry’s life, and that year he was hired as a construction teacher at West Hall High School, where he still teaches.
His mission now is serving as a role model for his students and using his story to inspire others.
“I just want to be light to others,” he said. “That's all I care about.”
He treats his students just as he would his own children, and some even call him “pops,” he said.
“Everybody looks at me and thinks I'm a big, bad tough guy,” he said. “But I tell them all the time, ‘I’m not too big, bad and tough to tell y’all I care about y'all.’”
Larry wants to retire as a teacher, but he isn’t quite done throwing around the steel.
He has one more mountain to move, he said: Break the world record.