|Robert Kearney lifting record from 460-700lbs.|
Bement School dorm parent and Deerfield Academy strength coach Robert Kearney is bending bars and breaking stereotypes as the world’s first and only openly gay professional strongman.
“Coming out, hands down, made me a better strongman competitor, because I was more confident in myself,” 25-year-old Kearney said Friday after completing a few warm reps in the squat rack at the prestigious Old Deerfield prep school’s weight room.
Over the next two months, Kearney will go for gold in three international strongman events. First, the Arnold Classic Africa, May 6, in Johannesburg, South Africa; next, The World’s Strongest Man 2017 in Botswana, the week of May 21; and finally, International Strongman Federation’s inaugural competition, June 10, in Austin, Texas.
Athletes who compete in strongman events must complete timed strength challenges, such as dead-lifting cars, tossing kegs, picking up large stone boulders, pulling semi-trucks, and lifting logs overhead.
After announcing he was gay in 2014, Kearney said he received text messages of encouragement and affirmation from internationally recognized competitors like Brian Shaw and Derek Poundstone.
For Kearney, a gentle man with a crushing handshake, massive trapezius muscles and a quick smile, weightlifting “is a therapy, that’s what it is,” which he found as a 17-year-old high school student at Norwich Free Academy, a private school in his Connecticut hometown.
There, a passing substitute teacher noticed him weight-training for football and saw potential. “I started training at his Crossfit gym at 5 a.m. before school,” Kearney said. Soon, he’d “shifted focus” from football “to something else I love, which is lifting and strongman. I realized I was good.”
The intense training paid off. In 2010, Kearney placed second in Strongman Corporation Nationals’ Amateur National Championship. Two years later, he placed second again. Then, in 2013, at age 21, Kearney won the national strongman event — earning his professional strongman card (there are about four given out per year) and launching him into the spotlight.
These days, following a strict four-day, sometimes four-hour training regiment and an up to 6,000 caloric intake, Kearney can log press 460 pounds, dead lift “mid-800s,” squat around 750 pounds, and bench press more than 500 pounds.
Since high school, Kearney has placed second twice at America’s Strongest Man, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in athletic training from Springfield College, and placed first in the 2016 Strongman Champions League Log Lift World Championships in Lithuania — an underdog win.
“After that, it was this ‘aha’ moment,” Kearney remembered. “It was the second day of competition — it was going well, and I was competing against monsters in the sport. I completed 425 pounds. No one expected me to hit that weight.”
The event in Lithuania was also the first time that now fiance Joey Aleixo, a Springfield College graduate student studying occupational therapy, saw Kearney compete in a strongman event. “To see how excited he was, for me — that was a highlight for me in this sport,” he said. Months later in December, on Aleixo’s birthday, Dec. 17, they were engaged.
As a gay man competing in “a world of hyper masculinity,” Kearney sees himself as an ambassador for gay rights “stepping up onto the world stage.”
“We’re reshaping what it is to be a gay man and the concept of what being gay is. That’s a big motivator for me — to show that gay men can compete against the strongest men in the world,” Kearney said, referring to a social media hashtag (#breakingthestereotype) created with Aleixo.
Over the years, Kearney has presented at various activist events, including as keynote speaker at Springfield College’s 2015 Tom Waddell Day celebrating student athletes and Waddell, a university graduate who founded “The Gay Games” in the 1980s.
Especially in strength-training, Kearney said there are strong stereotypes — like that “this idea that every gay man wants to hit on you” — and expectations of what masculinity is that make it difficult for gay men (and anyone who isn’t a specific gender identity) to walk into a weight room.
Unless someone has experienced it firsthand, Kearney said many people “don’t understand the anxiety a gay man has even stepping into the gym.”
Looking ahead, Kearney wants to place in the top five at the Arnold Classic, make the finals at The World’s Strongest Man 2017, and win gold in Austin. “The goal is always to do better than you do in training — hopefully, I’m rested up and stay healthy,” Kearney said.
By Andy Castillo at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 263. On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo