‘World’s strongest gay’: Strongman Rob Kearney breaks records and stereotypes

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  • Rob Kearney, known to be the first openly gay professional strongman competitor, pulls a firetruck as part of his training at Nonotuck Park in Easthampton as his coach, Derek Poundstone, gives him encouragement. Kearney is also the head athletic trainer at the Williston Northampton School. Story, more photos, Page C1. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney lifts a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut for a strongman competition.

  • Rob Kearney, head Athletic Trainer and Melissa Brousseau, Athletic trainer and Associate Athletic Director, at Williston Northamtpon School, wrap Left Jonathan Toth and Chloe Prouty before games. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney rests after lifting the log weighing 290 pounds while training for the Strongman competition at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. He and his husband, Joey Aleixo, right, arrived at 6:00 am to train before Kearney's job and Aleixo's school day. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Strongman competitor Rob Kearney, his husband, Joey Aleixo, and their dog, Glitter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kearney talks about technique with his coach, Derek Poundstone, after pulling a firetruck as part of his training in Nonotuck Park in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney frame carries about 700 pounds while training for a strongman competition at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney talks about his career as a strongman competitor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney talks about his career as a strongman competitor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney talks about his career as a strongman competitor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Strongman competitor Rob Kearney, his husband, Joey Aleixo, and their dog, Glitter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kearney lifts a log weighing 290 pounds while getting ready for a strongman competition. He and his husband, Joey Aleixo, left, arrived at 6 a.m. to train. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney lifts a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney lifts a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. He and his husband, Joey Aleixo, left, arrived at 6 a.m. to train. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joey Aleixo and his husband, Rob Kearney. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Strongman competitor Rob Kearney, his husband, Joey Aleixo and their dog, Glitter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney lifts a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney lifts a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney rests after lifting a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. He and his husband, Joey Aleixo, right, arrived at 6 a.m. to train. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney rests after lifting a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. He and his husband, Joey Aleixo, back right, arrived at 6 a.m. to train. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kearney carries around 530 pounds as part of his training for an upcoming strongman competition.

  • Rob Kearney rests after lifting a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kearney takes a rest.

  • Rob Kearney rests and watches his husband, Joey Aleixo. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney lifts a log weighing 290 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney frame carries around 530 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney frame carries around 700 pounds while training at Lighting Fitness in Connecticut. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • At right, Kearney videos his husband, Joey Aleixo. The two arrived at Lighting Fitness gym in Connecticut at 6 a.m. to train for a strongman competition.

  • Kearney wraps Maisie Tuck’s foot before a game at Williston Northampton  School, in Easthampton, where Kearney is the head athletic trainer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney frame carries around 700 pounds while training. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney wraps Noel Livingston’s foot before two tennis games at Williston Northampton School, where Kearney is the head athletic trainer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kearney, known to be the first openly gay professsional strongman competitor, at his desk at the Williston Northampton School, where he is the head athletic trainer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney, a Strongman competitor, pulls a firetruck as his coach, Derek Poundstone, watches as part of his training in Nonotuck Park in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney, a strongman competitor, pulls a firetruck as his coach, Derek Poundstone, watches as part of his training in Nonotuck Park. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney rests after pulling a firetruck as part of his strongman training in Nonotuck Park. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney pulls a firetruck as his coach, Derek Poundstone, watches as part of his training in Nonotuck Park. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney, a strongman competitor, tries to get his muscles to relax after pulling a firetruck as part of his training in Nonotuck Park. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney, a strongman competitor, pulls a firetruck as his coach, Derek Poundstone, watches as part of his training in Nonotuck Park. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Kearney, a strongman competitor, pulls a firetruck as his coach, Derek Poundstone, watches as part of his training in Nonotuck Park. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/29/2019 10:03:50 AM

It was an otherwise unexceptional May morning in Nonotuck Park — sunny, birds chirping, people strolling — except for one parking lot near a playground where a man with a mohawk was attempting to pull a 37,000-pound firetruck with nothing but his sheer strength.

Kearney, 27 of Easthampton, is a professional strongman. He also happens to be the head athletic trainer at The Williston Northampton School.

When he isn’t teaching, he can often be found in the gym lifting weights, but every once in a while he practices what he calls “truck pulls.”

Earlier this month, Kearney wore a yellow harness that wrapped around his upper body and attached to the firetruck behind him. A rope extended in front of him and was attached to the back of a pickup truck.

Slowly, he moved his hands up the rope, his body at a 45-degree angle to the ground, feet behind him and head forward.

“Pull pull pull!” his coach, and former professional strongman, Derek Poundstone instructed as Kearney worked. “Come on! Drive those hips, stick with it.”

A few employees from the city’s fire and police department watched, along with some casual spectators who happened to stumble upon the stunt.

At first, the massive truck looked completely immobile, and then, as Kearney advanced forward pulling on the rope and letting out frequent huffs, the truck’s wheels started to move, picking up momentum and rolling about 65 feet.

Seconds later, Kearney collapsed onto the ground, out of breath, eyes closed and sweat glistening on his partially shaved head. “That sucked,” he said.

‘Gay doesn’t look one certain way’

Later, Kearney said the firetruck pull left lingering soreness all over his body, from his back to his legs, for four or five days. But he is used to a challenge.

Over the past three years, he has traveled to 17 countries for strongman events — competitions that include a variety of strength feats, including lifting a barbell that can weigh up to several hundred pounds above the head in an event called “log press,” and hoisting an Atlas Stone, a heavy spherical weight, onto a pedestal.

At the moment, Kearney’s sights are set on the World’s Strongest Man competition, “the one everyone sees on TV,” he says, which will take place in Florida in mid-June.

At 5 feet, 10 inches and 280 pounds, Kearney calls himself small for a professional strongman. He competes against larger athletes, including the 6-foot-9, 400-pound athlete and actor who plays the character of The Mountain in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson or “Thor.”

Still, Kearney can deadlift more than a thousand pounds. He recently placed first at the Arnold Pro Strongman competition in Australia — which boasts Arnold Schwarzenegger as its poster boy — qualifying him for the 2020 Arnold Pro Strongman World Championship. And at a recent competition in Leeds, England, Kearney broke the American log press record by lifting 471 pounds, a feat he completed while wearing bright rainbow socks.

Kearney — who lives on Williston’s campus with his husband, Joey Aleixo, and their adopted English bulldog, Glitter, and is a dorm parent to 51 Williston boys— was hailed as the first openly gay professional strongman when he came out in 2014. As his Instagram notes, he’s the ”worlds_strongest_gay.”

He wants his presence as a gay man in a macho sport to send a message: “Gay doesn’t look one certain way,” he says.

Before he met his future husband, Kearney was coming to terms with his own sexuality. He decided to come out publicly a month and a half into dating Aleixo, whom he met through a dating app — “a typical millennial story,” he joked.

“I had pretended, essentially, to be straight for my entire life,” Kearney said. “It took me a long time to come out to myself and realize that I’m gay. But once I finally accepted it and was really comfortable with it, I was just like, ‘yeah, I’m just going to run with it.’ Fortunately, it’s turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to me in my life.”

The couple, who got engaged in 2016, decided to marry nearly two years later while in Melbourne for the Arnold Pro Strongman competition in Australia.

Wearing matching red bow ties, white button-down shirts and navy shorts, they said their vows on a cliff overlooking the beach, with family and friends tuning in by live-stream video.

Schwarzenegger wasn’t able to make it to the wedding. But after the wedding, he video chatted Kearney and Aleixo asking what their plans were for the evening.

“We had just made reservations at a restaurant for the two of us. He was like, ‘No, cancel them. I’m taking you guys out,’” Kearney recalled.

“He took us on a two-hour yacht tour of the city of Melbourne,” he said. “It was amazing.”

Coming out — in the spotlight

When he first came out, the media took notice. A blog post about Kearney as the first openly gay professional strongman was published on a weightlifting website. Two days later, he woke up and looked at his phone. “I had over 700 message requests from Facebook. I had gotten like 3,000 followers overnight on Instagram,” he said. “It literally went from 0 to 100.” Meanwhile, that morning, his email inbox filled with interview requests from the likes of Huffington Post and TMZ.

All that attention on a budding relationship was, as Kearney put it, “scary as hell.”

While his athletic community has been supportive, not everyone has been kind. “I get homophobic comments and messages every single day,” he said. “But the positive and loving ones outweigh them a thousand to one.”

His more-than-30,000 Instagram followers, for example, pay more attention to pictures of Kearney and his husband — who has also competed in amateur strongman competitions and uses the Instagram name ”worlds_gayest_strongman”— than they do to his weightlifting photos. “Jesus, here I am like pressing almost 500 pounds over my head, but no, they just want to see the guys kissing,” he joked.

Being open about his sexuality is important to Kearney, who covered it up for so long. “The biggest thing for me is visibility,” he said. “When I first came out, some of the negative comments that I was getting were, ‘Well, you’re gay, you can’t be a strongman.’ What the hell does that mean?”

He also gets pushback promoting himself as the world’s strongest gay on his Instagram account. “Everybody’s like, ‘Well, it’s not about your sexuality and all that.’ And, like, I understand it’s not. But for people to see that there is a gay man doing this I think is really important.”

Fuel and fitness

Four days a week, Kearney trains in the gym, sometimes in Holyoke or South Windsor, Connecticut, for anywhere from two to eight hours. For a while, he coached himself, until last year when he started working with Poundstone, who lives in Connecticut and typically sends Kearney workout plans.

All that activity requires fuel — Kearney eats between six and eight meals a day with an intake of 5,000 to 8,000 calories.

Some of his competitors have been known to take steroids, Björnsson, for example, told ESPN in 2017 that he has taken them, and the sports outlet called the drugs “long associated” with strongman competitions.

Kearney acknowledged that steroids are prevalent in the sport but said that he does not use them. According to the website for the World’s Strongest Man competition, athletes are tested for some illegal substances, and performance-enhancing drugs are prohibited.

Kearney first starting seriously weightlifting in high school at Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut, where he was both a football player and a cheerleader. A substitute teacher noticed his athletic skill and offered to coach him in​​​​​​ CrossFit, a high-intensity workout program. “I learned really quickly that I sucked at CrossFit, but I was good at picking up heavy stuff,” he said.

He then joined the lifting team at Springfield College, where he also got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in athletic training.

Aleixo recently graduated from Springfield College with his masters in occupational therapy.

At Williston, Kearney has been putting that education to use in his work with students, assessing athletes’ injuries and watching from the sidelines during games in case of injury. Next year, he won’t be returning to the school, as he plans to focus entirely on his strongman training.

Mark Conroy, director of athletics at Williston, said the school will miss Kearney.

“His unique personal story as an openly gay man who competes on the world stage in strongman contests has given him a unique platform and voice within our community,” Conroy said.

Conroy added that Kearney has formed strong bonds with students. “He is very personable and approachable, which is one of the reasons why he is an excellent athletic trainer,” he said. “I think, more than anything, Rob has taught our students to be proud of who you are and to follow your passions.”

Kearney’s own sport is not without sacrifice. At a competition last June, Kearney had his first major injury in the sport. He was lifting a 275-pound Atlas Stone onto a pedestal, but it wasn’t secure and fell on his chest.

“I ended up breaking three ribs, and I tore a muscle in my back,” Kearney said. “That put me out of commission for a while.”

His first competition since then was his recent win in Melbourne.

And now, he’s getting ready for World’s Strongest Man competition next month in Florida, training for three to five hours many days.

As for Aleixo, he has become a familiar face at the competitions and will be there by Kearney’s side come June.

“He’s treated just like one of the other wives,” Kearney said and laughed. “He’s the unofficial president of the Strongman Wives Club.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.Listen to the story behind the story on The Angle


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