Rob Kearney has some big goals. Like earning a spot in the top 10 at this month’s World’s Strongest Man competition in California. It’s within reach, too; he was 11th the last time he competed. But something else motivates him even more than even the boldest of athletic accomplishments.
Kearney is the first and only openly gay professional Strongman. And he wants to show the world that your sexual orientation won’t stop you from achieving greatness. In fact, it can be the fuel for greatness.
If you know Strongman, you know Rob Kearney, aka the “World’s Strongest Gay” on Instagram – and also the pound for pound strongest man, period. He’s a force to reckon with, especially under a yoke, with his bright rainbow mohawk and equally colorful clothes. Kearney publicly came out as gay in 2014, a year after he became a pro Strongman by winning the Amateur National Championships and shortly after taking second at America’s Strongest Man. Coming out was part of his journey of self-acceptance and self-realization, he says. “I was at a point in my life realizing I was just tired of waking up every single day putting on a façade to be somebody I wasn’t,” Kearney says. “I did what I felt was necessary for my overall happiness in my life, not just in my Strongman career.”
But it did affect his career in strength sports, too.
“I’m not just an athlete anymore,”
he says. “I have to be an advocate, as well -- sharing my point of view and experience with the world to help people understand what it’s like to be a gay man in strength sports.”
This message informed Strong, a book he just released in May. Strong is a children’s book inspired by Kearney’s life, using color as a metaphor for how much you can achieve when you accept yourself for who you are.
“I like to wear bright, colorful clothes, but when I started competing, I wore what everyone else wore,” he says. Finally, the main character in the book decides to wear all the vibrant colors that feel true to him – just like Kearney did in real life. And he competes. And wins.
“I’m hoping people understand strength is more than physical. Having inner strength is just as important as being physically strong,” Kearney says. And living an honest, true life freed up a ton of energy to enhance that internal strength that helped him level up as an athlete, he says.
The Journey to Strongman
Kearney wasn’t always an elite athlete. He says he started as “mediocre,” playing football and cheerleading in high school in Connecticut. Football is what led him to the weight room, which is where a teacher noticed he was pretty strong. That teacher also happened to be a CrossFit coach.
Encouraged by his teacher, Kearney began going to CrossFit classes at 5 a.m. before school. He loved the barbell lifts and strength challenges the most, and that snowballed into Kearney competing in his first Strongman competition his senior year. There was a teen division, but he went straight to compete with the big guys.
He got demolished.
But he fell in love with the sport.
Of course, he says, he enjoyed the physical tests of strength. He loved how every Strongman competition was different; that keeps the sport exciting. But what kept him coming back was the community.
“Strongman is one of the few sports that while you’re competing against somebody, you’re also cheering for them,” Kearney says.
He joined the weightlifting team at Springfield College in Massachusetts and continued competing in Strongman, working from the 200 pounds weight class up to heavyweight, which is where he competes today.
Thirteen years since his first Strongman comp and Kearney has competed in strength competitions around the world, including the World’s Strongest Man (since 2017), the Arnold Strongman Classic, and the Arnold Strongman Australia. He placed fifth at the 2022 Arnold. He took first place in the heavyweight class in 2016 Log Lift World Championships and was runner-up in 2019. He also held the national log lift record at 471lbs, despite being smaller than most Strongman athletes.
Strength sports are a long and slow journey without instant gratification, Kearney says. It’s easy to look at where he is today and only see the last few years of success. But it took him eight years of steady, relentless, patient work to finally get the needle moving.
And the demand for tenacity continues. After taking 11th in the World’s Strongest Man in 2019, he ruptured his triceps three weeks before the World’s Strongest Man 2020 and had to pull out. Then in 2021, again three weeks before worlds, he found out he had testicular cancer. After surgery, doctors are now monitoring his condition.
This year, he made it past that three-week-out mark with no unwelcome surprises. Third time’s the charm.
As Kearney gears up to fight for his spot in the top 10 at the World’s Strongest Man, he has to balance that with another mission. He’s a certified athletic trainer at a high school.
Full circle. This time, Kearney is on the other side of the story. He’s the role model in the weight room encouraging young athletes to pursue their own potential. And who knows? Maybe he’ll find the next big Strongman star under a barbell, just waiting for a push.