Rob Kearney, the self-proclaimed “World’s Strongest Gay” is a rising star in the Professional Strongman Community as he strives to make a big impact at this year’s World’s Strongest Man competition set to be held on June 13th in Florida.
Kearney has shown strong confidence in and out of the gym ever since he came out in 2014 as he pursues his goals to compete at World’s Strongest Man as an openly gay athlete. With the support of his husband, Joey Aleixo, he does not hold back when it comes to his identity. In an interview with Men’s Health, he shared…
“I’m here for two reasons: to succeed at the sport of strongman, and to show LGBT folks and everyone else that this sort of success isn’t just possible but normal and acceptable,” Kearney says. “Look at my Instagram and that’s what you’ll see: me lifting heavy weights and hanging out with my husband.”
This competition for Kearney represents 10 years of hard work and training to improve and grow. Starting out as a scrawny, 17-year-old kid; Kearney was looking for a new purpose outside of school and football. At the suggestion of a teacher, Kearney joined a gym where he realized that he had quite a knack for lifting heavy things.
“But it wasn’t like I was fantastic right off the bat,” he says. “While I did begin participating in strongman competitions right away, that meant I finished last in eight consecutive events. That was fine, though, because my goals were always modest and incremental—do slightly better at this contest, improve my max in this lift by few pounds or my time in this event by a few seconds. Anything more than that, I think, and you’ll get discouraged and want to give up. And gradually I got better, with a longer runway than most because I was just a teen when I started. I’ve had time on my side when it came to getting better.”
After high school, Kearney enrolled at Springfield College to pursue athletic training. Springfield College is also the alma mater of Tom Waddell, the founder of the Gay Games and modern LGBT Sports movement.
“I also joined the school’s powerlifting team, and helped remake it into ‘Team Iron Sports,’ which went beyond powerlifting to include strongman and bodybuilding-style training as well,” he says. “I was still below 200 pounds and also commuting to South Windsor, Connecticut, to train at Lightning Fitness, because that meant I had the opportunity to train alongside people who were better than me.”
Kearney went on to earn his Bachelors and Masters degrees in sports sciences while continuing to train and prepare for competitive strength sports.
“The successes started to come, slowly but surely,” he says. “In 2010, I placed in the top three at the strongman amateur nationals, and in 2013 I won that event and got my pro strongman card. I was setting and meeting manageable goals. I was improving, gaining weight and muscle mass, but also and more importantly becoming technically as close to perfect as possible at the lifts I was doing.”
At age 22, Kearney publicly came out as a gay man to the strongman and strength sports communities. While Kearney has received negative criticism from online commenters, he has found that his fellow athletes and coaches in the strongman community to be very supportive and welcoming.
“Brian Shaw texted me to tell me he appreciated my courage. Derek Poundstone, who is coaching me right now, said the same thing. And that’s what I’ve seen from these high-level athletes: they’re all competitors who value strength and performance, and they’re not going to think in terms of stereotypes, they’re going to think in terms of this being a community of people who have a shared goal of getting stronger,” Kearney says. “You can be whatever or whoever you want to be, as long as you’re competing your hardest, and that’s an attitude that needs to be shared more widely.”
Unfortunately, Kearney has also dealt with homophobia during competition as well. But that has not deterred Kearney in any way.
“At one contest, I had someone in the crowd chirping at me, shouting the usual dumb slurs,” says Kearney. “And after listening to that for a while, I just looked at the guy and told him, ‘Dude, I suck dick and I’m stronger than you.’ That was the end of that.”
Kearney has competed in World’s Strongest Man competitions in 2017 and 2018, but he didn’t make it out of the qualifying heats. However, he is more optimistic about this year’s competition.
“I was in two World’s Strongest Man competitions, in 2017 and 2018, but I didn’t get out of the qualifier heats and into the finals,” he says. “But this year the lineup of competitors in my heat and the list of events seem tailor-made for my skill set. I’d like to finish in the top two of my qualifying heat and get into the finals this year and then see what happens. That’s my current goal. But there’s still a lot of time. You’ve got top stars who have participated in this sport well into their thirties, and I’m only 27. I’ve already won the Log Lifts World Championship and set the American log lift record [471 pounds]. There are many more workouts ahead of me, many more modifications I can make to my programming. I’ve quit my job and I’m able to train full-time for this now. I’m going all-in.”
Only a decade into his career, Kearney certainly has a bright future ahead of him as a competitive strongman as well as serving as inspiration and a positive role model for up and coming gay athletes who are motivated to follow in Kearney’s footsteps.
“I find it gratifying to get messages from LGBT teens and adults telling me I’ve made them feel comfortable enough to pursue their goals in strength sports,” Kearney says. “And if I had to tell that kid, that younger version of me, something I would have wanted to hear, it’d be to urge him to keep training to be the person everyone else said you’d never become. Many people thought I was undersized for football. Many people wrote me off as a serious competitive athlete, someone without untapped athletic potential. But I managed to turn one lucky invitation to a gym into an entire career, and I became a professional athlete. People didn’t see that potential in me, but I saw that in me, and I trained until I’d brought it to the surface.”
By Dirk Smith