Robert Cheeke has built a career in bodybuilding and vegan nutrition
If there’s one thing you can say for Corvallis native Robert Cheeke, it’s this: He’s got hustle.
The once scrawny Corvallis High School student has built a veritable fitness empire in the obscure — but growing — category of vegan bodybuilding. It’s a seeming contradiction in terms which he personifies with contagious enthusiasm and a rock-hard body.
Cheeke’s bodybuilding competitions, book and film projects have taken him to 45 states and multiple countries in recent years. Cheeke is out to prove that athletes can create “meatless muscle” with a training plan that features natural plant-based meals and supplements.
Cheeke is a two-time Northwestern U.S.A. Bodybuilding Champion (2005 and 2009) and took second place in the 2006 Natural Bodybuilding World Championships for middleweights.
His 2010 book “Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness” has been on the Amazon.com best seller list for “Health, Mind and Body” for nine months, rising as high as No. 7.
His 2006 DVD “Vegan Fitness: Built Naturally,” shot at local spots including Downing’s Gym, First Alternative Co-op and Philomath, has sold thousands of copies.
He put 20,000 miles on a Prius last summer speaking and exhibiting at vegetarian, health and fitness expos for Vega, a vegan nutritional supplement company started by friend Brendan Brazier.
Along the way, he started writing another project that he’s dubbed “Driven – The Road ‘Well’ Traveled” to encourage other people to turn their passions into a career.
In addition, over the past year he’s worked to promote the 2011 documentary “Forks Over Knives.” The film, written and directed by Lee Fulkerson and produced by Brian Wendel, claims that most, if not all, degenerative diseases can be controlled or reversed by rejecting animal-based and processed foods. The film ran in theaters across the nation from May to August.
Cheeke, most recently living in Los Angeles, has moved home to Corvallis for the last part of this summer to lay low and work on his next book.
On Monday, he could be found pumping iron in the familiar space of Downing’s Gym in south Corvallis.
“This is where it all started,” he said. A free two-week pass hooked a 14-year-old Cheeke on weightlifting for life.
A cross country runner in high school and during his first year at Oregon State University, Cheeke credits his friend Jordan Baskerville for helping him make the transition from runner to body builder, spending countless hours at Downing’s training together.
Bodybuilder Troy Alves was the coach who introduced him to competitive bodybuilding and Andre “Bam Bam” Scott taught Cheeke the art of posing, which allows judges in competitive bodybuilding to critique muscle size, symmetry and definition.
In recent years Cheeke essentially has been self-trained. He’s nursing a chest injury that happened in March. Even so, he’s still in the gym about an hour a day four to five days a week and eats about six times a day.
Cheeke said he gets his hard work ethic from his parents, who both grew up working on family farms.
At the same time, Cheeke’s farming background made him an unlikely convert to a vegan lifestyle.
Cheeke grew up on Kiger Island and participated in 4-H, where he raised chickens and a calf to sell at auction.
“At first they weren’t really supportive,” he said of his parents, Peter and Edna, who met while working at Oregon State University’s Animal Sciences Department. Now divorced, Cheeke’s father, Peter, still teaches and his mother is retired.
He always felt a kinship to the animals raised on the farm, but credits his older sister, Tanya, with compelling him to go vegan as a high schooler, eschewing all animal products in his diet.
In the mid-1990s, as a member of Corvallis High School’s Students for Peace through Global Responsibility club, she organized an Animal Rights Week. Cheeke attended to support her and ended up deciding to go vegan himself. Two years later, he was heading up the event as a senior.
His parents, whose careers are based on the study of how best to produce and sell animal agricultural products, at first were not fans of two of their teenage children refusing to eat meat, or even eggs or milk. But, Robert and Tanya were steadfast in their decision.
“We took a stand,” Cheeke said. “Every single one of us has something in common (regardless of species). Fear, pain, suffering; we all dread that. All beings share that.”
Despite their different choices, Cheeke said he’s very proud of his family, which he calls “absolutely diverse and interesting.”
While Cheeke and his older sister Tanya are vegans, youngest brother Clarke is a vegetarian and middle brother Ryan is a cattle farmer. His parents have been accommodating, even experimenting with alternative dishes at times. “We’ve had many all-vegan holidays,” Cheeke said.
Cheeke, graduated in 1998 from CHS, where his other claim to fame was heading up a Pro Wrestling Club that staged fights at pep assemblies complete with body slams, thrown trash cans and folding chairs broken over backs. From the age of about 8 to 21, he was obsessed with professional wrestling.
He went on to Oregon State University, where he ran with the cross country club for one year, before switching to bodybuilding exclusively and transferring to the Utah College of Massage Therapy, where he set academic records and hoped to work one day for the World Wrestling federation, now World Wrestling Entertainment.
That dream didn’t work out, but now he counts a vegan professional wrestler Daniel Bryan among the fans of his website www.veganbodybuilding.com. He’s also brought much of the flair and pageantry of pro-wrestling to his competitive bodybuilding routines.
“It’s on that platform that I get to live out that dream that never came true,” he said.
Flexing his muscle
Cheeke is an anomaly in more ways than one.
In the world of bodybuilding where athletes routinely have turned to performance enhancing drugs, he’s staunchly against.
He doesn’t drink alcohol either and takes issue with the way that women are often portrayed in the sport and in fitness magazine advertising, to the point where he’s walked out of a major bodybuilding expo because he felt women were being exploited as sex objects.
And, as a vegan, he works to dispel the myths that all vegans are skinny, moody, underfed and wear black clothes. He hopes he can create change from the inside of both subcultures to make each more mainstream.
At the root of it all, Cheeke is an inspiration. He’s believes in personal improvement and repeatedly says that with 1,440 minutes in a day we all have time to do something that matters.
Each one of his successful projects got its start while he was working a day job somewhere else – such as giving massages on Caribbean cruise ships or working security at Hewlett-Packard.
“I always had something else going on,” he said. “I just used that work ethic and hustled hard.”
To fund his first book project he had to pre-sell about 700 copies. That hard work paid off and the book sold so well that he was picked up by a publisher just a few weeks after the release.
Since, he’s hand-signed each of the nearly 7,000 books sold with an inspirational message, making a trip to Tennessee several times a year for marathon book signing sessions.
In all, he has at least four books in the works. Including one dubbed “Think Differently” that encourages people to live for “seven out of seven days, not just the weekend.”
“You can’t do anything well without passion and caring behind it,” he said. “I was the skinniest, scrawniest kid in school,” he said. “I had no business in bodybuilding. On top of that I became a vegan and wasn’t expected to succeed … But, I understand how to outwork almost anyone that I’ve known.”
Contact reporter Nancy Raskauskas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-758-9542. Follow her on Twitter @NancyR10.