The World’s Strongest Gay
An interview with Rob Kearney, the first out gay pro Strongman
By: Linnea Hartsuyker
Rob Kearney is a professional Strongman who burst onto the national stage in 2014 when he came out publicly, becoming the first out gay pro Strongman. I got a chance to chat with him over Skype on Jan 4, 2019 about his fitness journey, coming out, and what it’s like to be a pioneer in Strongman.
Strongman is a sport you may not know well, but you have likely seen it on ESPN: giant men lifting heavy stones, cars, refrigerators. The most famous practitioners are men in the heavyweight class, men like Hafthor Bjornsson, who is 6’ 9” and over 400 lbs of muscle, but Strongman is more than that, with competitors of all sizes, ages, and genders. Every weekend, somewhere in the US, Strongman athletes get together at gyms, or in driveways, on blacktops, to lift odd, heavy things all day and cheer each other on.
Linnea: Thanks so much for your time, Rob! It’s great to meet you. To start off, can you tell me how you got into Strongman?
Rob: I fond Strongman through Crossfit. When I was a senior in high school working out in the HS gym, a substitute teacher who walked by noticed that I was decently strong so he offered to train me for free at his gym each morning before school. So I would go to the gym between 5 and 5:30 before school my senior year. I found out quickly that I was pretty horrible at the Crossfit workouts but really good at the strength movements.
One morning in the spring, I walked into the gym and they said, “Hey, there’s a Strongman competition in a couple of weeks and we signed you up for it.” I had never done any of the events before—I had never trained for it. And it was the day after my senior prom. So I went and competed in my first Strongman competition at 17 years old, on about two hours of sleep. Totally got my ass kicked. I was the youngest competitor by about ten years and I finished 16th or something like that. But ever since then I was complete hooked.
I graduated from high school and then I went to Springfield College where I joined the Powerlifting team, and did that until I found a Strongman gym in the area where I then transitioned to Strongman full time.
Linnea: Tell me a little bit about the transition from amateur to pro.
Rob: I competed in the amateur ranks from 2009 to 2013. I competed in the under 200 lbs class in 2009 and 2010, and then made the jump to the “lightweight” class, which is 201-231 lbs in Strongman. 2012 is when I got more serious, more competitive in the local competitions, and made a run for my pro card. In 2013 I won the Amateur National Championships by the largest margin of victory in history, and winning that is what catapulted me into the pro ranks, and I became a professional Strongman in the 105kg division.
Linnea: Being a pro Strongman means not only a different level of competition, but prize money. Still, do you have another job as well?
Rob: I do. I have a bachelors and a masters in sports training and athletic medicine and currently I am the director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer at a boarding school in Massachusetts. I live about 45 minutes from my Strongman gym. I woke up at 4am today to do Strongman events.
Linnea: So does that mean you train Strongman events once a week and do more powerlifting stuff and accessory work the rest of the time, the way a lot of Strongman athletes do?
Rob: A friend of mine owns another gym 15 minutes from where I live, so I train at his gym during the week because it’s easier with my work schedule, which is pretty crazy during the school year. I essentially work from 8:30 to 6:30 every day Monday through Saturday, so for me to make that 45-minute drive four times a week…I’d never sleep.
I do my barbell training during the week, and fortunately the gym owner has bought some Strongman equipment, so on my overhead press day I can do log press now during the week, which is great. Then Sundays are my big Strongman day where I’m at the gym for hours on end to get all my event training in.
Linnea: I became aware of you when you came out publicly as gay in 2014, as did a lot of other strength athletes. Can you tell us a little more about that process?
Rob: My story is a lot like everyone else’s…I had this “Aha” moment in 2014–I found myself exhausted putting on this façade of this heterosexual, hyper-masculine man every single day. I woke up and was like “what the hell am I doing with my life?” And I was fortunate enough to find my now-fiancé Joey. We met in August in 2014, starting dating officially in September, and I came out publicly October 20, 2014.
My fiancé had been out since he was a senior in high school and I really felt that it wasn’t fair for him to be dating someone who wasn’t out. So after he and I made it official, I came out to my family and friends. Through the entire process I had this, kind of, “fuck you” mentality, like “If you’re not going to accept me for who I am and who I want to be, then I really don’t need you in my life.” I didn’t have any fear going into coming out. I guess I’m weird in that respect, because it is a totally life-changing and life-defining moment, but I was just excited.
Linnea: How would you say that’s affected your personal and professional life?
Rob: It’s done nothing but catapult me to a new level. I really didn’t think, in a million years, it would blow up into what it did—there was the HuffPo article that went viral, we were being contacted by TMZ, Conan was talking about us. It did put a lot of strain on a very early relationship, but it was fantastic. I received so many messages of love and so much support after I came out.
Of course there were the assholes that came after me, people saying “oh, you’re gay, you can’t be a Strongman,” but it was mostly from people who were new to the sport, and they didn’t understand the culture. I’d already been competing in Strongman for years when I came out, and I had a great group of friends. The sport is a brotherhood—it’s a lot like Crossfit where it’s such a niche sport you see the same people over and over again at competitions, and we cheer for each other. People at the highest level of the sport—Derek Poundstone, Brian Shaw—messaged me saying “hey man, we’re happy for you, we support you.” The negative messages were from people who didn’t understand the culture and how close all of us are when you get into the professional ranks.
Whenever people have said jerky things online, other people would clap back at them, so it’s been nice to get that support from people I don’t even know.
Linnea: When I was in Strongman, it seemed like it skewed a little more right-wing than some other strength sports–do you find that at the pro level, and has it been a problem for you?
Rob: I compete predominantly at the international level. I get the hate mail, but it’s never from competitors or promoters. The best allies I have are two English competitors, Terry Hollands and Laurence Shahlaei. They have both been at World’s Strongest Man for something like a decade, and they were the first ones to support Joey and me in our relationship. It’s pretty fantastic to have that support from guys I watched on TV before I even started the sport. Now I consider them friends, colleagues, and competitors, and that’s why it’s been easy for me to be open about my sexuality.
Linnea: You’re training for Arnold’s Sports Australia in March–can you tell us a bit about that and what you are hoping to accomplish there?
Rob: 2018 was a rough year for me, personally and competitively. Going into 2019, I completely revamped everything, hired Derek Poundstone as my strength coach, hired a nutrition coach, and I’m getting weekly massages and other bodywork done. I’m really treating myself like a professional athlete, instead of just a guy who does Strongman and travels around the world.
My first contest of 2019 is in Australia in March. It’s part of the Arnold Strongman World Series, which is a qualification system to get to the Arnold Strongman Championship in Columbus, Ohio.
I’m known for my log press—I’m one of the only pros who does a log split jerk. I’m arguably one of top 3 in the world for the log press. Also the yoke walk—I’ve only been beaten in that event once. Those are my two favorite events. Physically I’m one of the smallest competitors on the international stage at 280 lbs. Events like the truck pull are harder for me because you need that mass to get the truck going, so I’ve been working at that for 2019. In Australia there will be six events, including atlas stones, with the heaviest stone weighing, I think, 485 lbs.
Linnea: How do you feel like fitness fits into other aspects of your life: your goals, your personal development, etc.? How has being involved with strength sports changed you, beyond the physical?
Rob: Strongman has taken over my life. But I do have a real job where I work with high school athletes. It definitely excels me in my career at the school since I can really relate to these athletes. I can empathize with them better if they’re going through an injury. I had a pretty bad injury this past summer when a 275-lb atlas stone fell on my chest in the middle of a contest. It’s definitely elevated my professionalism here at the school. I incorporate some Strongman stuff into rehab exercises at the school.
Linnea: How do you unwind?
Rob: I do like to cook, but I work so hard that I mostly like to do nothing when I have some downtime. I like to sit on my couch with my dog, watching Netflix. I love HGTV—as I like to call it, gay man ESPN. Friday nights I always schedule for Ru Paul’s Drag Race. And sometimes I play the guitar and sing.
Linnea: The OUT Foundation is doing a lot of work to improve opportunities for transgender athletes. Do you have any thoughts about transgender competitors in in Strongman?
Rob: Strongman Corporation recently came out with a trans-inclusive policy that went into effect as of January 1, 2019 which is fantastic. They will pretty much follow the IOC guidelines for the Olympic committee. Essentially as female-to-male you can compete whenever you’d like to. Male-to-female there are some parameters around testosterone levels and testing. There was a lot of pushback, and some state chairs quit, but I think it’s absolutely a step in the right direction. I mean, goddamnit, it’s 2019. It’s time.
I know OUTWOD was a big motivator for Crossfit to change the policy, and to see that come into Strongman now is really amazing. I’m excited to see where it goes in the next few years.
Linnea: Anything else you want to tell OUTWOD readers?
Rob: I want to put out a plug for gay athletes to get involved in Strongman. From the outside looking in, Strongman can be pretty intimidating for a gay man, so if there’s anyone in the OUTWOD community who wants to get involved or learn more, they should hit me up!
You can find Rob on Instagram @worlds_strongest_gay
Linnea Hartsuyker is the author of The Half-Drowned King, The Sea Queen, and the upcoming The Golden Wolf, a trilogy of novels about Viking-Age Norway published by HarperCollins in the US and internationally in six other countries. She is an avid Crossfitter and a former amateur Strongman competitor who competed at Strongman Nationals in 2015 in the women’s middleweight division. You can also catch Linnea in “The Strong Woman Episode” of the OUTcast Podcast available on iTunes, Google, and Spotify.