Rob Kearney exudes fortitude, inside and out
By Dawn Ennis
When he’s not pulling firetrucks, lifting stones or carrying an 1,102-pound weight called a “yoke” around, professional strongman Rob Kearney typically is in a gym in South Windsor or at work in western Massachusetts as a certified athletic trainer. Yes, in addition to proving his incredible physical strength in contests around the world, Kearney admits, “I have a ‘real’ job,” too.
“I actually work as a physician extender,” he says, “with non-surgical orthopedic doctors who specialize in non-surgical care of orthopedic injuries of athletes and any active adult.”
In spite of his impressively beefy, broad shoulders, Kearney, 28, describes his physique as “slightly chubby.” In fact, at 5’10” and 285 pounds, he is not all that big compared to other strongman competitors. Former World’s Strongest Man champions Brian Shaw of Colorado and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson of Iceland are 6’8” and 6’9” respectively; both weigh 440 pounds.
Kearney is much more of a “Clark Kent,” whose true nature as a super man is cleverly disguised. To discover his secret identity, don’t bother looking for a cape: Kearney is the one sporting a rainbow mohawk hairstyle, to tell anyone who asks, “Gay doesn’t look one certain way.”
“There is a very, very big LGBTQ+ population here,” Kearney says. “So, I usually get a lot of compliments on my hair. When I’m bringing patients into the room, that’s usually the first thing they point out, which is great.”
The mohawk actually predates the rainbow. And children get a real kick out of it, too, he says.
“I think the best thing about the hair is hearing all the little kids in the grocery store, you know, pulling on their mom’s coat, saying, ‘Mommy, Mommy! Look at the guy with the rainbow mohawk!’ You know, that’s always really cool when you see three-, four- or five-year-olds can be excited about it. That makes this a lot of fun.”
Embracing His True Self
Kearney first adopted his now-trademark rainbow mohawk look in June 2019. “Rainbow colors because the World’s Strongest Man was being hosted in June, which is Pride Month. So with it being in the USA as well, I felt that it was pretty important for me to take that extra step and be a little bit more representative for the LGBTQ+ community.”
Kearney has been representing ever since 2014, when he came out as gay with a social media post that made headlines. That bold step out of the closet followed a decade of refusing to acknowledge his truth.
“It took that long because there was a lot of self-denial,” he says. “I had tried to live the ‘heterosexual lifestyle’ for a long time.”
Last December, he was invited to share his coming out story with middle school students in Deerfield, Mass., and mentioned he had once lived with a woman. “It was essentially me and a good friend just living together,” Kearney says. “And, I don’t know what it was, but one day I woke up and I finally realized why I wasn’t so happy.”
Kearney figured out his unhappiness stemmed from a common experience among closeted members of the LGBTQ+ community: exhaustion from trying to convince others, and themselves, that they’re someone they’re not.
“You’re just exhausted every day of putting on this facade, pretending to be somebody you aren’t, all the time. And then finally, being your true self, this weight gets lifted off your shoulders. And, you know, I’m literally a professional weight lifter, and I’ve carried thousands of pounds on my back, but nothing has ever, no weight has ever been lifted off my shoulders, like when I came out back in 2014.”
It was in 2014, he says, he fell in love. “I was in a relationship with a guy who had been out since high school,” he recalls about dating Joey Aleixo.
“I really didn’t feel that it was fair for him to be dating somebody who’s still closeted in our early 20s,” Kearney says. “So, in the most millennial way possible, I came out via a Facebook post on ‘Man Crush Monday.’ I came out to my family and friends prior to that, my close family, friends. But then on October 20 of 2014 is when I came out to the world.”
His Facebook post read: “My [man-crush Monday post] goes to … my boyfriend! The past few months have been crazy, but throughout all of this, you’ve given me a reason to smile. So I guess this is me coming out and saying … I’m gay!!”
“Finally being able to be myself without fear, and finally, honestly experiencing love and real happiness for the first time,” says Kearney, “that was my biggest motivator to come out.”
A Trailblazer Among Strongmen
In the macho world of strongmen, this was the sports equivalent of Ellen declaring “Yep, I’m gay.” Kearney was the first out gay man to be actively competing in pro-level, international strongman competitions. And while his historic coming out story brought him a bigger spotlight, he says that’s not the reason for his fame.
“Strangely enough,” recalls Kearney, “my strongman career took off, just catapulted forward. And it wasn’t simply just because, quote, unquote, ‘people were looking at me because I’m gay,’ and that’s how I got popular. It was that I genuinely got so much stronger after I came out. And that was just because I didn’t have to pretend anymore.”
To embrace his newfound fame, Kearney adopted social media handles: @strongestgay on Twitter and @worlds_strongest_gay on Instagram. Aleixo chose @gayeststrongman and @worlds_gayest_strongman.
“I was fortunate enough to meet Joey and get into this amazing relationship,” says Kearney, who reveals the couple met on Grindr in September 2014. Which prompts the question: did he swipe right?
“Luckily, he messaged me first,” Kearney says with a laugh.
Finding ‘The One’
So, why did Aleixo reach out? It wasn’t based on looks, he says: “I wanted to meet someone, at least get to know someone. That was my main initiation for a conversation.”
“I was on Grindr trying to kind of come to terms with my sexuality,” says Kearney. “And then Joey kind of came out of nowhere and messaged me. And so we started dating a few weeks after that.”
And, as in many love stories, the timing was not ideal, Kearney recalls.
“It’s funny, because we look back and we both realized we were not in any place in our lives to start a really serious relationship,” he says. “I was just finishing my first year of grad school, Joey had just finished undergrad, so neither of us thought that it would turn into a lifetime partnership.”
Kearney and Aleixo got engaged on Aleixo’s birthday, Dec. 17, 2016. Then, for a short time in May 2018, the couple split. But they reconciled, and started making wedding plans.
“We had kind of always planned on the traditional big wedding, and we had looked at venues and done all the numbers and realized that, 1: we couldn’t afford it. And 2: we were way too selfish to put on a wedding for everybody else.”
As it turns out, the couple found a way to combine competition and tying the knot in their own distinctive way, in one of the most beautiful places on earth. In March 2019, Kearney and Aleixo were headed Down Under for a very big contest, organized by the world’s most famous body builder, actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Arnold Pro Strongman Australia competition is one of several qualifying events leading up to the Arnold Strongman Classic, the world championship event held each year in Columbus, Ohio.
“The Arnold Strongman Classic is one of the most coveted strongman competitions in the world. It’s arguably the most selective,” Kearney says. He was one of 13 men competing in six feats of strength over the course of two days in Melbourne, Australia.
According to official reports, Kearney was on fire right from the start, winning the first two feats. He completed the 1,102-pound yoke in 13.22 seconds. A yoke is a staple of strongmen competitions, in which contestants pick up a large metal frame with a crossbar, stacked with weights on all four corners and, with the crossbar resting on their backs, carry the yoke over a long distance as quickly as they can. Kearney lifted five times his weight and walked it across the competition floor in about 13 seconds, more than four seconds faster than anyone else. He also won the log press, lifting 200 kilograms – more than 440 pounds.
On the second day in Melbourne, Kearney lifted four huge Atlas stones in almost 76 seconds and finished fourth, but he was still able to take the overall victory by a margin of 1.5 points. Winning qualified him to compete in this year’s Arnold Strongman Classic against “Thor” Björnsson, the defending champion and an actor who played “The Mountain” on Game of Thrones.
And as a bonus, Kearney got to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.
“Arnold was presenting me the trophy on stage and asked what we had planned for the rest of the weekend. So I told him, in front of a few thousand people, that I’d be getting married the next day,” Kearney says. Schwarzenegger pulled Aleixo up on stage to cheers and whistles.
A month earlier, Aleixo had suggested they elope to a place neither of them had ever been before: Melbourne. In the space of a few weeks, they found a justice of the peace who suggested scenic Half Moon Bay Beach. On March17, they exchanged vows on a cliff overlooking the bay.
“Fortunately, it turned out to be absolutely amazing and breathtakingly gorgeous,” he says, wistfully. “It was perfect, to say the least. It was the most amazing day of our lives.”
Aleixo took his husband’s name, and their heartwarming wedding photos went viral. As it turned out, the day after was almost as magical.
“After the wedding on Sunday, my phone was ringing and it was a FaceTime call from Arnold, who then asked what we had planned for the night. And I told them we just had made dinner reservations. And his response was, ‘Cancel them. I’m taking care of you guys.’” Schwarzenegger chartered a yacht and took the newlyweds on a three-hour tour of the city of Melbourne, Kearney says. “And then he kind of spoiled us even more and took us out to dinner afterwards.”
Using ‘Negativity as Motivation’
Thanks to Kearney’s victory in Melbourne, the couple traveled to Columbus, Ohio in March for the world championship. And while people cheered the Kearneys Down Under, a handful of haters jeered them in their native land.
“My husband and I were walking across the street and a couple of guys driving by screamed out, ‘Faggots,’” Kearney says. “I think any LGBTQ person deals with that stuff.”
“Typically, I ignore the comments,” he says. “I use all the negativity as motivation for training. For me, there’s no better way to say ‘F-you’ to that person than for me to win. So, I just try to channel that negative energy that those people are giving me and use it positively in my training to work harder, become better, get stronger and place higher in the competitions that I do.”
And the “coolest” thing to the Kearneys, he says, is that the straight men he competes against are their biggest allies.
“If somebody makes a comment on one of our posts, we don’t even have to defend ourselves. It’s usually our friends that are also in strongman that come to defend us and have our backs and show that allyship that’s so amazing in this sport.”
An Unexpected Path
Despite its central role in his life now, Kearney says strongman wasn’t even on his radar growing up. He was born in 1991 in Brooklyn. As a child, his family moved to North Stonington. He spent his high school years at the Norwich Free Academy, where he briefly was a football player and then a cheerleader.
In January, Kearney told podcaster Joe Rogan that joining the cheerleading squad was where he first really put his strength and his skill to use: “I was throwing girls up in the air by myself and catching them overhead. The timing, coordination, it’s crazy. It takes a lot of balls.”
Although he considered pursuing cheer at a collegiate level, he gave it up because he felt he was “a little too chunky” to successfully do a backflip. So next he “dabbled in lifting weights,” but a chance encounter provided a new direction.
“My senior year in high school, I was working out when a substitute teacher who was also a CrossFit coach noticed me and started training me at his gym before school,” Kearney says. Every weekday for more than four months, he reported to the CrossFit gym at 5 a.m., and worked out. “And I found out pretty quickly that I sucked at CrossFit, but I was really good at lifting weights.
“So I walked into the gym one morning and the gym owner said, ‘Hey, there’s a local strongman contest this weekend. We signed you up for it.’” Kearney knew right away he was in over his head.
It was 2009 and, at that time, Kearney saw strongman as “big guys lifting these crazy things, pulling trucks, picking up cars, lifting logs over their head,” he recalls.
“I was 17 years old. I had never trained for strongman. I’d never done any of the implements; I’d never done the lifts.” But he didn’t say no. “I went to the contest, got my ass kicked – I took dead last of 27 athletes – and fell in love with the sport.”
Kearney joined the powerlifting team at Springfield College, where he also earned his bachelor’s and master’s in athletic training. For a time, he served as the head athletic trainer at the Williston Northampton School, while also honing his technique, and competing on the amateur circuit.
In September, Kearney will have been competing in strongman for 11 years. “I started competing under 200 pounds and I took dead last in every contest I did for eight contests straight,” he says. “I didn’t win a show until my 17th contest. And I made my way through the entire amateur rankings, through multiple weight classes before I ended up competing at World’s Strongest Man starting in 2017.”
The results were not as rosy at March’s world championship in Columbus: he finished sixth out of ten, with “Thor” three-peating as World’s Strongest Man. But the Kearneys also marked their first wedding anniversary.
Then life took a different turn for them, and for all of us, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
“We really tried to practice that social distancing, just because it’s proven to work so, so well, which was tough because we’re both pretty social people,” Kearney says. “So for us to not see our friends and kind of hang out with people we love was a little bit tough, but we knew how important it was. So, we spent a lot of time together.”
What’s he like cooped up at home? Joey Kearney spoke to Connecticut VOICE by phone from their kitchen, where he was cooking one of the six to eight meals a day his husband eats. Rob Kearney’s daily intake is between 5,000 to 8,000 calories. Joey confided that Rob is not what some people seem to think.
“People approach him who want to take a picture, and I’m like, ‘Oh, do you want a picture?’” says Joey. “Like, I initiate it, because I can tell they’re hesitant to even approach him, even though he doesn’t seem like a scary guy to me. He’s generally just a teddy bear type of a person.”
Together, they care for an English bulldog named “Glitter,” whom Kearney insists already had that name when they adopted her, and despite the fame, they struggle like everyone does.
“[Being a strongman] doesn’t pay nearly what it should pay,” Kearney says. “The prize purses at competitions are much lower than other professional sports, even in the strength world. And endorsement wise, we get taken care of. But we’re not getting these massive deals that other professional athletes are getting.” Fortunately, Kearney also has his work as a physical extender to fall back on, and his confidence in himself.
He said he’s heard from naysayers ever since he started in 2009. And in 2017, he came up with his own motivational quote: “I trained to become the person they said you would never be.”
“My entire life was always just trying to do what people said I couldn’t do and achieve things that people thought were unattainable for me,” says Kearney. “It was that I didn’t have the size, I didn’t have the stature, I would never be that strong. And, you know, in most senses, a lot of people were right.”
“Looking at me, I think the best compliment I ever got in strongman was somebody once told me that I was ‘the least genetically gifted athlete to ever make it to World’s Strongest Man.’ And I took that as the biggest compliment in the world, because that just means, nothing was ever given to me,” he says. “I had to work my ass off to get to this level in the sport. And that’s something that I still continue to do in my career right now.”