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Bay State Strongman Rob Kearney lends his colorful, queer experiences to ‘Strong’

Eric Rosswood and Rob Kearney's new children's book, "Strong," follows Kearney's journey as a queer competitor in the heavy-lifting world of Strongman competitions.LBYR

In the world of Strongman competitions, there’s one athlete who sports a rainbow mohawk — the Bay State’s own Rob Kearney, or as his YouTube followers affectionately know him: “The World’s Strongest Gay.” He and his husband, Joey, make their home near Springfield and in 2019, Kearney not only won Strongman titles and set records, he also pulled a 37,000-pound Easthampton firetruck 65 feet down the road. When author and LGBTQ+ activist Eric Rosswood heard about these feats, he realized that Kearney’s story would make perfect picture book material.

Illustrator Nidhi Chanani joined the project eventually known as “Strong,” a colorful, charming book, coauthored by Kearney and Rosswood. The book, which debuted in May, follows Kearney’s journey to becoming a professional Strongman competitor. Ahead of the release, we sat down with all three creators to discuss defining masculinity, collaborating to tell Kearney’s story, and those signature leggings.

Q. How did the idea for turning this story into a book come together?


Rosswood: I saw an article with Rob breaking a log lift record and I thought that was really inspiring. I wanted the story to get more attention and kids don’t see enough LGBTQ+ role models so I reached out to Rob on Twitter.

Kearney: I’ve traveled the world, done some awesome things, and met really cool people — but children’s books are timeless. You remember the books you read as kids.

It was an easy transition ... to hourlong conversations about “What is Strongman?” and “How do we turn this hyper-masculine and intense lifting sport into a child-friendly story?”

Q. How did you get involved, Nidhi?

Chanani: When [my agent] described who Eric and Rob were, I was immediately interested. I had never done a nonfiction picture book and it’s cool to honor a current hero — someone who you can learn about and then go see in action. As an artist, I saw [Rob’s] rainbow mohawk and was like, I need to draw this. And, as a queer person, I enjoy opportunities that allow me to be part of the LGBTQ+ community.


Q. What’s the story behind the mohawk, Rob?

Kearney: In 2019, it was my first time competing in World’s Strongest Man in the US and it was being held during Pride Month. I’d always been known for wearing my colorful spandex when I compete and I just really wanted to up the ante that year when I was representing the USA as a gay man in Pride Month. It’s been a staple ever since.

The funny thing is, I hadn’t colored my hair through the [pandemic], and when I went to a competition back in October, the number one comment I got wasn’t about my performance — it was “Where’s the rainbow hair?”

Q. Speaking of spandex, your signature style has been captured by Nidhi throughout the book, but where do you find such fabulous spandex to fit you as one of the world’s strongest men?

Kearney: Honestly, I Google “crazy men’s leggings” and scroll for hours. There have been all these trials and tribulations with companies that say things like 2XL and then (the leggings) come and must have meant [2XL] in youth [sizing]. Luckily, now I work with a clothing company that designs my leggings for me.


Q. Nidhi, did you pull the patterns of Rob’s leggings in the book from real ones?

Chanani: Yes — I looked at a lot of photos of you, Rob. It feels really awkward to say! I have a whole folder of references and I collected so many great photos.

I wanted the art to reflect what I could feel in the words: that feeling of you’re doing something that challenges the whole hyper-male, testosterone-filled environment of this sport.

Q. Eric, you said this wasn’t a coming out story — why is that important and how did you avoid turning it into that?

Rosswood: I didn’t want coming out to be the problem. It’s still in there, but color is used as a metaphor and because Rob’s story included the shift to colorful leggings as he embraced who he was. There are so many layers to the story — challenging stereotypes of what it means to be strong and masculine, and the depiction of both inner strength and outer strength. I feel very lucky that Rob let me work on this project.

We’re a big superhero family and my son would always talk about “I bet Superman could do this,” or “that character could do that,” and after we read “Strong,” it started evolving into “I bet Rob Kearney could lift this.”

Q. Rob, I love the picture where Nidhi drew you meeting your husband in the gym, and the little hearts floating up. How did it feel to see that in the book?


Kearney: It’s my favorite picture in the entire book and Joey and I have talked about getting it painted for our wall. It’s such a beautiful moment and to see it happen in a gym is so, so cool. Joey never felt totally comfortable in a gym. As an out gay man, something as simple as asking someone to spot you means worrying about how they’re going to react. But to see two men falling in love inside a gym, it speaks to a lot more than just being in the gym itself.

Q. Do you feel supported as a gay man in Strongman?

Kearney: One of the beautiful things about Strongman is that it’s such an overwhelmingly accepting and inclusive group of people. There are only 25 or 30 men in the world that compete at my level and we all understand the work it takes to get to here. These guys are my best friends — we travel the world together. If I go to a competition without Joey, the first thing they say is, “Where’s Joey?”

Q. Who do you hope will read this book? Who is it for?

Kearney: It’s exciting because growing up, I never saw anybody like me. I’d always been an athlete, but I never accepted myself for who I was. I tried to be straight because in this world of athletics and lifting weights, I was conditioned to think, “I can’t do it.” It’s great to be able to show everybody the obvious — that sexual orientation and gender identity hold no weight — no pun intended — on the things you can achieve in life. Giving hope to even one kid who doesn’t think they can do it makes it all worth it to me. Giving some love to the Strongman sport is good, too.


Interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood will join Kepler’s Literary Foundation for virtual Pride Story Time on Sunday at 2 p.m. The webinar is free to join, or for $34 attendees will also receive a shipped copy of the book. Tickets at eventbrite.com.

Adria Karlsson is an author and writer based in Cambridge. Follow them on Twitter @adriakarlsson.