Words: James Hodge; Images: Gymshark
In partnership with Gymshark.
Rob Kearney is a big character in every sense of the word. A professional strongman known as the ‘World’s Strongest Gay’, he is an athlete with a remarkable physique: bulging biceps, thick thighs, and a broad torso. Perhaps most notable is his distinctive rainbow mohawk, a colorful hairstyle equally matched by his high-energy, bold and outgoing personality. Competing in multiple competitions over the past 13 years, Kearny won the titles of Giants Live Champion and the Arnold International World Series Champion, cultivating a large following of strongman-fans and LBGTQ+ people alike, celebrated for his ability to both inspire and entertain.
On the morning I speak to Rob, he is immediately charming and warm. I’m surprised to hear that he hasn’t already been to the gym, where he typically spends four to eight hours a day. "It’s been a really relaxing morning" he tells me, smiling. "I haven’t lifted a weight since Monday – my body doesn’t hurt as much as normal, so it’s nice to recover a little bit."
About to go to Sacramento to compete for the title of World’s Strongest Man, he has been training heavily until now. Why the rest days before? "World's Strongest Man is a different beast of a contest. Typically, our competitions are one to two days long, this one is six. So a little bit longer an event." This sounds intimidating to me, but Rob is ever the optimist: "Based on how everything has been laid out so far, what we know for the competition, I feel really excited about it."
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Rob was a highly driven individual, committed to school, sports and student government. He didn’t consider his sexuality when he was younger – "I was always focused on other things, and I was never one of those guys that needed a relationship." It was later, when he turned 22 and had a girlfriend at college, that Rob realized he was different. "I just realized that this wasn’t me – and ended the relationship to start my own journey of self-realization and self-acceptance."
Just months later, Rob met his now-husband and partner of eight years, Joey. They were in very different places when they first got together. "We met via Grindr. Joey had been out since he was 17, had had the typical gay experiences, had been in a relationship before. I was still in the closet and trying to figure out what the heck everything meant. I realized that not only was I falling in love with this person, but I was also learning what it meant to be a gay." I ask if this epiphanic moment and the transition afterwards was difficult. "It was quick," Rob replies, "but fortunately, I had a very loving and supportive family. It was never an obstacle. It was more like reframing what my life was going to be from that point on."
Rob was already competing as a strongman, but there had not yet been an out gay competitor in the United States. He had always been a sportsman – American football, baseball, cheerleading – but it was as a strongman that he found his calling. "I liked that it's an individual sport. The amount of work you put in is going to dictate the result you get at the competition. If I go to a competition and perform poorly, I just didn't work as hard as everybody else. But if I succeed, I know that I have worked harder than everyone."
Rob knew that he needed to come out to his community, but was optimistic that his news would be well received. "I think every gay man experiences anxiety and fear about coming out because we want to be accepted for being the same person we were before coming out. We fear that people are going to look at us differently. But (being a strongman) is a sport where you're competing against somebody and cheering for them at the same time. My competitors would know that I was still the same Rob, I was still strong as hell. That wasn’t going to change.’ How did he react to the inevitable negativity from coming out in the public spotlight? "I realized that this was the first time in my life that I was fully understanding what it means to be happy. And you know what, if you don't like it, you can go fuck yourself!"
This unapologetic and unashamed approach to talking about his sexuality that led Rob to being seen as not only a talented sportsman, but a proud LGBTQ activist. Growing up, Rob didn’t see breadth in the representation of gay people in sports and the media. Now that he is out, he recognizes the important role he plays in the sporting community. "There had never been a gay strength athlete before. I’ve been given this amazing platform to show everybody in the world that being gay doesn't look a certain way. Compared to traditional representations, it’s unusual to see a masculine muscular guy with a mohawk kissing his husband on TV."
Rob saw the way his presence made a difference from his interactions with fans. "I received a message on Instagram from a teenager who was struggling with his sexuality. He was ready to end his life because he didn't feel like he fit in anywhere. Seeing me doing what I am doing in my relationship, and being unapologetic about everything, that made him realize that he does have a place in this world and he can have a future. It was getting that first message where I thought, wow, I'm more than just a strongman at this point. I need to be able to use my voice to challenge people’s perceptions and champion LGBTQ people."
Already, there has been an influx of LGBTQ athletes joining the sports. "We’re seeing more people wanting to get into the sport and not being afraid. I think as a gay man, the gym can be one of the most terrifying places you can go to. Especially one that specializes in strongman and powerlifting. I think getting rid of that stigma is so important."
Rob’s proactive and positive advocacy led to him becoming an ambassador for fitness apparel and accessories brand Gymshark. What first appealed to him about the brand? "I liked looking at a lot of the men who model for them," Rob laughs. However, his enthusiasm for the brand is undeniable: "Gymshark make everybody feel like they’re a part of the family. They pay so much attention to the little details that matter to each individual athlete. Take me. They’ve been so open to working with a bigger-bodied athlete, to producing me sportswear that matches the ridiculous colour palettes and designs that I love."
This Pride month, Rob is proud to appear as ambassador for Gymshark’s video series ‘Pride In Progress.’ These fascinating short films ‘celebrate the Gymshark LGBTQ+ family, their unique journeys of identity and love, their battles, their successes, their progress.’ Rob is always looking at how he can continue to share his message of power to young LGBTQ people, now co-authoring a children’s picture book entitled Strong.
The story is about a young person who wants to become a strongman, but fears he won’t be accepted because of his differences: "He wants to flip tires, lug boulders, lug cars… whilst having bright leggings, unicorn t-shirts and unicorn hair." The narrative is clearly close to Rob’s heart. What inspired his message? "Self-acceptance and self-realization. These are the real keys to unlocking your ultimate potential. The title, Strong, is important because people always think of it as physical, whereas actually it comes from within yourself. I actually have a tattoo on my arm – inner strength. Self-belief and self-confidence are so much more important than the things we can physically do. They help us become who we truly are, that you never knew even existed."
As far as competing as a strongman goes, winning isn’t the be all and end all for Rob. "I'm somebody that's going to go out and compete and do my best. I want to win and I want to be successful, but my career doesn't hang on that thread. For me, it's all about making sure my character is what people remember me by. I want people to continue to get excited to see me because I genuinely love what I'm doing. I love having fun while I'm competing, interacting with the crowd, just being me."
Of course, the ‘World’s Strongest Gay’ feels hopeful about the upcoming competition later this week and wants to do his best, but it’s hard not to be inspired by the fact that everything he does, he does proudly as his authentic self, having fun and sharing his passion with his audience. What’s the secret to success? "I go into every competition thinking yes, I'm there to perform and put on a show and lift these absolutely insane weights. However, I will always do it the Rob Kearney way."
Watch Rob Kearney's 'Pride in Progress' documentary film with Gymshark above. Strong, written by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood, is out now.