Kiwi-Aussie strongman Rongo Keene takes on the world. By David Robson
The maximum lifting prowess of a powerlifter, the bone-crunching explosiveness of an NRL enforcer, the muscular endurance and elite athleticism of an Olympic gymnast and showmanship of a WWE superstar…
All are esteemed attributes of the strongman competitor. According to recently-crowned Australia’s Strongest Man winner Rongo Keene, strongman is most certainly not for the average lifter seeking a surefire ego boost. It’s not a sport that one simply dabbles in. For Keene and others of his ilk, a formidable foundation of physical strength must be in place before committing to the arduous training needed to pull a truck 100 metres or press a 150kg log overhead without requiring immediate spinal surgery.
A solid strength foundation and impressive work ethic were there for Keene when he began training for strongman competition in 2013.
“I was adopted at a young age with nine other boys and we all grew up on a farm,” says the 29-year-old Kiwi powerhouse of Ngati Pahauwera tribal descent. “Because of this tough upbringing I became very strong, both mentally and physically. And I learned the value of hard work. I was given nothing and was told that if you wanted something you had to work for it. And that’s what my whole life has been about. If I choose to apply myself to something I always give it 100 percent.”
Following his Aussie Strongman win last November (his most recent and biggest to date in which he won four of six events and set a new Australian record in the yolk walk – 450kgs over 20 metres in 11.02 seconds), at the time of writing the New Zealand-born Keene was poised to represent Australia at the Arnold Classic Australia in March.
“I’m using this opportunity to introduce myself to the world as ‘The Warrior’,” says the strongman pro, whose Maori heritage has gifted him the natural strength to take on the world’s strongest men. “From there I’m hoping to get a shot at the World’s Strongest Man competition in 2017. I’ve got a few years up my sleeve to get even stronger. But good things take time and I’m willing to put in the work and do the time.”
Always a little stronger than his peers, Keene, who grew up in the Hawke’s Bay township of Mohaka, dreamed of translating his natural strength into sporting success. He got his chance in 2013 upon meeting his present-day coach and mentor Carl Waitoa, a Kiwi strongman legend who represented New Zealand at the 2005 World’s Strongest Man competition in China. By then, Keene had moved to the Western Australian city of Kalgoorlie (at age 18) to work in the mines.
“When I was working in the mines, all I had was a gym in a shed and my kids [two boys, now aged 5 and 3],” says Keene. “Before all of this happened, there was only me and my kids in the shed training. My coach has helped me to become the lifter I am today.”
Now living on the Gold Coast, the 183cm, 145kg athlete of surprising agility trains full-time for strongman while running a scaffolding business and caring for his kids.
“If I’m not working or training I’m with my family,” he says. “I don’t really have a social life because with training, family and work I don’t have much time. Downtime with my family is what anchors me.”
Following the lead of Kiwi lifting greats he most admires (notably, Levi Vaoga, Odell Manuel and his coach Carl Waitoa) Keene adopts a no-nonsense training approach centred on blisteringly intensive workloads combined with optimal rest periods. A typical training day consists of an early morning “recovery session” comprising a 3km run, stretching and light weights. Come 6pm the human hoist is ready for the heavy iron.
“My morning sessions are just as important as my heavy sessions,” he says.
Throughout the day he will eat 6-7 high-calorie meals including whole chickens, plenty of energy-rich carbohydrates and countless eggs and protein shakes.
So what does Australia’s strongest man consider most important for boosting strength?
“Recovery,” says Keene. “People don’t understand how important recovery is. When you’re constantly putting your body under that much stress, you need the recovery to let everything heal and relax.
Strong mind = strong body
Keene also channels mind power when attempting a big lift.
“My coach and I believe that a strong mind equals a strong body,” he says. “To us, if you are mentally strong, your body is also strong. Many are the times when I’ve failed a lift then got my mind right and destroyed it.”
When specifically prepping for an event, cardio for the Kiwi lifting king is exclusively explosive, with 10-15 metre uphill sprints among other drills giving him the endurance to tackle such exhaustive events as truck pulling with a harness, the farmer’s walk and keg loading for time.
“Even though we’re big guys we are still very fit and fast,” says Keene. “Some of the other athletes outweigh me by over 30 kilos but I have beaten them. This is where you have to decide whether you want to be statically strong or strong and mobile. To beat a larger, stronger man you have to be strong but also mobile, agile and fast.”
A finalist on 2005’s season two of the reality TV talent-hunt New Zealand Idol, Keene today expresses his theatrical side via the entertaining nature of strongman competition. Traditionally a form of commercial entertainment, with 19th Century circus performers the original strongmen, strongman today continues to attract fans by its freakish performances. For Keene, doing the seemingly impossible while entertaining the masses is all in a day’s work.
And once the training is done and the competition begins, he is all business. By transforming into “a different person”, militantly intent on conquering both the iron (and all manner of additional heavy objects) and the opposition, the former farm worker has carved for himself a marketable niche in strongman circles.
“I’m The Warrior,” says Keene. “I’m there to do a job. I’ve spent all this time training and away from my family. When I compete I’m there for one reason and one reason only: to win. I’m carrying a lot of people on my back and I do this to prove that, even though you may come from nothing, you can still be something.”
A tough upbringing combined with a willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed has forged in New Zealand and Australia’s newest international strength star an unshakable sense of self-belief that has propelled him into the ranks of such strongman luminaries as five-time World Champ Mariusz Pudzianowski, the “Viking” Jon Pall Sigmarsson and current World Champion Brian Shaw. To have come so far from such humble beginnings is, says Keene, achieved by following an important piece of advice:
“Don’t ever listen to anyone who says you cannot achieve your goals. That’s just an excuse. I am living proof that you can succeed if you put your mind to it.”
Name: Rongo Keene
Nickname: The Warrior
Competition bodyweight: 130-135kg
Offseason bodyweight: 145kg
Birthplace: Mohaka, NZ
Current residence: Sanctuary Cove, Qld
Gym: The Dungeon
Tribal affiliation: Ngati Pahauwera
Facebook: The Warrior – Strongman Rongo Keene
Western Australia’s Strongest Man – 2014
Australian Log Lift Open Champion – 2015
Singapore’s Strongest Man Open Champion – 2015
Arnold Classic Heavyweight Amateur Division – 2015
Australia’s Strongest Man – 2016
5:30 am: wake-up – protein shake, banana porridge
6:00 am: gym – cardio and recovery training
10:00 am: protein shake, six poached eggs, avocado on toast
12:00 pm: bowl of pasta with lean mince, protein shake
2:00 pm: rice cakes with peanut butter, banana and fruit salad
4:00 pm: left over dinner (to load up for training) – steak, vegetables and loads of greens, protein shake
6:00 pm: train
Dinner: chicken or steak and plenty of vegetables
Before bed: cottage cheese and protein shake