My 25-Year Vegan Journey: From Skinny Farm Kid, to Champion Vegan Bodybuilder, to Published Author
Robert Cheeke as a teenager; bodybuilder; and published author
The Early Vegan Awakening — Thanks, Sis!
On December 8, 1995, my life was forever changed. It wasn’t something I expected, but a decision made on that day changed the course and trajectory of my life in ways I previously never could have imagined. Though I had spent my entire life up to that point living on a farm, raising animals, showing them at the county fair and selling them in auctions at the conclusion of each summer’s county fair, on that early December day, I decided that at age 15, in the mid-90s, that I would become a vegan.
My older sister, Tanya, organized what was called an “Animal Rights Week” at our high school during her senior year, and my sophomore year. Out of respect for my sister, already a vegan, (not consuming any animals or animal by-products, or using items tested on animals), I decided that I would follow suit, for that week.
After watching videos of factory farming and animal testing, listening to speakers, reading literature, and having conversations with others during that week-long animal rights event at our high school, my week of veganism has now turned into more than a quarter century, or more than 1,300 weeks of vegan living.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in the early days. My parents, who met in the animal science department at Oregon State University, who both grew up on farms and raised my siblings and me on a farm, were not so thrilled with my decision to become vegan. In fact, they were quite concerned for my health, assuming that I would not get adequate nutrition without animal protein.
My father, Peter Cheeke, is after all a world-renowned expert in the field of animal science and an author of 15 college textbooks on the subject. To add to my parents’ predicament, my youngest brother, Clarke, who at that time basically did everything I did, became a vegetarian at age 11. And more than 25 years later, he is still a vegetarian, leaning toward a fully plant-based diet, and my sister is still going strong with nearly 30 years of vegan living under her belt. And like our father, she also has her PhD and is now a university professor herself, specializing in microbiology.
Robert protesting the circus in Corvallis, OR during the 1990s.
But there were other obstacles in my early days of veganism, beyond just a lack of support from my parents, and the raising of an eyebrow from many of my classmates and teammates on my high school sports teams. I was only 15 years old, didn’t have a lot of my own money, and I knew what I didn’t want to eat anymore, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I should be eating, especially as a 5-sport athlete, primarily excelling at long-distance running and playing soccer, while weighing just 120 pounds.
I had always wanted to be bigger and stronger, and in fact, had aspirations of becoming a professional wrestler, growing up in the 80s and 90s when I was mesmerized by the larger than life characters I saw on Saturday morning television, since I didn’t have cable TV to watch it at other times. That was my initial impetus for wanting to build muscle, to emulate the wrestlers I saw on TV, hoping someday I could walk in their shoes.
My Early Days as a High-School Vegan Athlete
In the initial few weeks of my vegan lifestyle, I was still searching for the foods that would give me the most fuel while also making me feel full, as I tended to gravitate toward cereal and soy milk for breakfast, bread rolls in the school cafeteria during a morning break, bagels, chips, and salsa for lunch, and I was still becoming accustomed to tofu as a staple in my diet, often eating soups out of can or spaghetti as my go-to larger meals. I ate fruit from our farm, and vegetables from our garden, and other produce from the grocery store, and whatever happened to be plant-based that my mother was making for meals at home, but it was still a learning process, especially navigating meals at school.
I was also adapting to the social pressures of defending my brand new stance on animal rights that was instant like the flick of a switch, and my friends had to adapt to the “new me” as well. As time went on, I figured things out, and my 5-sport high school athletic career continued as I played basketball, wrestled, competed in as many track and field events as possible, and played two varsity sports, soccer, and I ran cross country. Our soccer team was ranked #1 in the state of Oregon for 4A schools, and our cross country team was ranked #2, so I had the opportunity to compete at a high level with a number of teammates who went on to play professional soccer in the MLS or professionally abroad, or run cross country at major universities like the University of California at Berkeley alongside Olympic-caliber distance runners.
Robert running cross country for Corvallis High School in 1997.
After a couple of years of being active in the vegan community at my high school, when I was a senior, I helped organize the Animal Rights Week, and I went on to run cross country for a year at Oregon State University after I graduated from Corvallis High School. My activism was on display, leading by example as a plant-based athlete in the late 90s, finding success, particularly in running, and it started to encourage other athletes to consider leaving animals off their plates.
Though running was unquestionably what I excelled at the most, I still had real aspirations of getting bigger and stronger, particularly because I thought it could help give credit to the compassionate vegan lifestyle that I had been passionately promoting for years. Specifically, protein consumption was such a hot topic then. If you think protein consumption on a plant-based diet is a debatable topic today, consider what it was like decades ago. I wanted to show, unequivocally, that you could build muscle and achieve your athletic goals on a plant-based diet, so I had to put it to the test.
But, becoming muscular didn’t really seem to be in the cards for me, and not really within my genetic makeup to put on a lot of muscle and actually look like a professional wrestler. I only weighed 89 pounds at the start of 8th grade, weighed 120 pounds my first year as a vegan, and 133 pounds the following year, the weight that I wrestled at. I didn’t even break 150 pounds until after I graduated high school, and I weighed 145-150 pounds my year running cross country at Oregon State University. My siblings were in the same boat, my sister weighing barely 100 pounds, and my brothers both lean, endurance-focused athletes like me, playing soccer, hockey, and basketball, also weighing 150 pounds or less during their teenage years. We weren’t exactly built like weight lifters in my family.
Robert as a new vegan, weighing 120 pounds as a 5-sport athlete
I still longed for that muscle-building outcome nonetheless because I thought that if I could build muscle without consuming any animal protein, it could ultimately inspire others to do the same, and result in saving many animal lives. This is authentically accurate. That’s what I was dedicating my life to doing; pursuing my own meaningful goals, while making a difference in the world around me by changing the way people viewed vegans. Back when vegans were often seen as fringe outcasts in many ways, and had almost zero association with athletics, but were more connected to the animal rights or hippie movements, I set out to carve my own path - one of compassion with athletic results.
A Major Turning Point in my Life - A Recurring Theme for Me
Though it was simply an aspiration to build vegan muscle, in 1999, just a year removed from high school, while in my hometown of Corvallis, I was lucky to bump into an old childhood friend who had just recently had his interest in the sport of bodybuilding piqued, and he was lifting weights recreationally, but with enthusiasm. I had lifted weights casually in high school, as part of the process of being on competitive sports teams, and as a high school elective course on weight training, but I certainly wasn’t a big fan of it, and hadn’t been doing it as a collegiate distance runner.
Ironically, this same friend, Jordan Baskerville, was the friend I was going to lunch with every day, eating fast food and meat-based sandwiches as a teenager before I became vegan. When I became vegan, I started to hangout with a different crowd, and for the most part, it is safe to say I had lost touch with Jordan for a few years. We just had different social circles during our final couple of years of high school, and he went off to college out of town, and I stayed in Corvallis to run at OSU.
During that same chance meeting at a grocery store in our hometown, he showed me bodybuilding magazines with his newfound enthusiasm for the sport, and invited me to lift weights with him. I accepted the offer and we became training partners during the time we were both in the same town. I quickly fell in love with the sport of bodybuilding, seeing it as a path to building my body to eventually become a pro wrestler, while showcasing a compassionate side of bodybuilding. I was still just 19 years old at this point, four years into my vegan lifestyle, and ready to put on some muscle.
After a year at Oregon State University, attending physical education classes just so I could run on the cross country team, with no real career goal in mind other than hopefully becoming a pro wrestler someday, I moved to Salt Lake City to attend the Utah College of Massage Therapy (UCMT), which was the #1 massage therapy school in the country at that point. During that time, I truly embraced the bodybuilding lifestyle, following the Body-for-Life program by Bill Phillips, which was the top muscle-building program in the world during that time, or so it seemed, and I completed my first-ever transformation. I finished a vegan version of the 12-week Body-for-Life program and grew from 157 pounds to 176 pounds, adding 19 pounds to my frame in three months.
Robert’s 10-month transformation from 157 pounds to 185 pounds from 2000-2001.
It’s worth mentioning that during my initial months of weight training, for up to almost a full year, I made little to no progress. It wasn’t until I added structure to my routine, by following a specific program that called for working out six days per week, doing specific exercises for deliberately timed workouts, all under an hour, and allowing progression to take place, that I finally made those significant gains. It was the first time that the value of following a dedicated routine became apparent to me, and I followed training programs from that point on to continue to make progress.
While at UCMT, I became enamored by anatomy and physiology courses, as I learned more about the human body, and I applied what I learned to my weight training and nutrition programs. Once I finished my professional massage therapy program, I enrolled in a graduate sports massage therapy program, and even had the opportunity to work with the USA Olympic Ski team on one occasion, other athletes from rock climbers to runners as part of various internships and volunteer work, and I spent nearly every single day in the Career Services office trying to land a job as a sports massage therapist for the then WWF, now WWE, pro wrestling organization.
My goal was to get my foot in the door, and eventually create a vegan character and become a pro wrestler myself, after learning the ropes as part of their training staff. I got close, and was in direct phone contact with their lead trainer who ultimately phoned me one afternoon from the WWF headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, and said they were not going to hire me. That hit me pretty hard because that was all I wanted to do. I excelled in school, and knew there would be other opportunities for me, but I was pretty bummed that the opportunity I wanted had escaped from my grasp and I had to face the reality of moving on.
A New Beginning: The Start of My Bodybuilding Career
After I graduated from UCMT in 2000 with academic honors, and became a licensed massage therapist with a graduate emphasis on sports massage therapy, I went back home to Corvallis for a while, to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Jordan was back in town, as he had transferred from one university over to Oregon State University and splitting his time between the University of Oregon, and OSU in our hometown. So, we were back in the gym training together.
But, since I knew I needed to find an actual job, I accepted a massage therapy job at the Biltmore Resort in Phoenix, Arizona, the number one hotel in the city at that time. I also took a job as a massage therapist at a high-end gym where I continued my pursuit of bodybuilding. It was there that I connected with my first famous bodybuilder in real life, Troy Alves. I had seen him in muscle magazines, and in fact, I had his picture up on the wall at the gym where I was working as the manager of the massage therapy department, in an article related to massage therapy benefiting weight lifters, and his wife, who was a member of my gym, spotted the photo and explained that she was married to the guy in the picture. I asked if I could meet him, and I couldn’t wait. His wife put me in touch with him and I reached out to set up a meeting.
When I first saw Troy, he was huge. I’d never seen anyone that muscular before, and I ended up hiring him as my trainer for a period of time, meeting just about once per week across town at the gym he trained clients at, and he helped me learn the ins and outs of the bodybuilding industry. I would later travel to support Troy when he won Mr. America later that summer, and I would see him on tour for years to come, including cheering him on as he placed 8th in the world at the Olympia years later.
Robert with Troy Alves in Arizona in 2009.
I was so into bodybuilding at this point, and my jobs were going well, including a bonus I had recently received at the gym, so for our 21st birthdays, I flew Jordan out to Arizona to train with me and Troy, and we also attended a WWF pro wrestling show in Tucson before flying out to Columbus, Ohio for the largest fitness expo in the world, the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. On my actual 21st birthday, I got a photo with Arnold, the most influential bodybuilder in history, and so did Jordan, less than 2 weeks before his birthday. As 21-year-olds taking our first big trip together, to the biggest and craziest bodybuilding and fitness expo in the world in 2001 (and still to this day), we had the time of our lives meeting all the famous bodybuilders over the 3-day expo, including some big-time pro wrestlers who were there too, including Triple H, Kurt Angle, and Scott Steiner, all A-list wrestlers during that era. That is still one of the most iconic trips I have been on because of what it meant to me during that time in my life.
Robert with WWE pro wrestler Triple H and his wife, Stephanie McMahon in 2001.
Many years later I saw Arnold in the gym and told him my story of meeting him on my 21st birthday, and in typical Arnold fashion, he asked me if I was coming back to the Arnold Classic. “Are you coming back? Come on, say it. Say it…..Say I’ll be back” he said, followed by a typical Arnold laugh, knowing he had set me up for one of his most classic movie punchlines, for which I obliged and did indeed go back.
Robert with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2001.
Robert with Arnold Schwarzenegger at Venice Gold’s Gym in 2016.
My First Bodybuilding Setback… Before Life on the Open Seas
I returned to Arizona from the three-day whirlwind fitness expo with 150,000 other fitness fans, with more enthusiasm for the sport of bodybuilding than ever before, and even prepared to compete on the bodybuilding stage later that summer, in 2001. I had been working hard with my sights set on a summer 2001 bodybuilding competition, and spent months getting myself ready for it, including practicing posing with Troy, and learning how to go through the mandatory poses that bodybuilders perform on stage. But I would catch a severe case of mononucleosis, and kept training seven days a week, not knowing why I was feeling ill, and ultimately ended up in the hospital and was unable to compete in my scheduled competition that summer. My flight was already booked for the competition that was taking place in Oregon, so I went home anyway, while still recovering from mono. And while at another crossroads in my life, I decided that since I couldn’t work for a while, due to having to take a couple of weeks off of work entirely while having mono, that I would leave my jobs and leave Arizona, and once again return to Oregon.
Shortly thereafter, once I had recovered and was feeling great again, I knew I still needed to work. I went back to UCMT in the fall of 2001 to interview for a job working on cruise ships to explore my fascination with world travel while working in a field that I was trained to work in. I accepted an offer to work for Steiner Transocean, the company that contracted the spas on most of the cruise ships in the world. First, I had to travel to London, England to complete a company training that would last for anywhere from 3-12 weeks, to learn the products that would be sold in the spa, and to learn specific spa treatments that I would be performing. This is where my go-getter attitude perhaps got the best of me. On the one hand, I was having such a fun time in England, having roommates from various countries, including South Africa, and studying with dozens of others who would all be placed on different ships. On the other hand, I excelled through the program so quickly that after only three weeks I was called up and placed in one of the top cruise ship spas in the world at the time, the spa on the Celebrity Millennium ship. Had I taken a slower approach to the training, I could have extended my time in London by many weeks, which would have meant more quality time with new friends in an exciting global city.
The spa company that hired me owned the spas on more than 120 cruise ships, so it was anyone’s guess what ship we would end up on, in which part of the world, and the group of spa students I studied with all went to different places, landing on different ships. Many of those friends I made during those brief three weeks, spending all day with them, bonding on this first-ever experience for most of us, I never saw again. I would bump into one or two of them when our ships docked at the same port at the same time, months later, and kept in touch with a few others via email.
Here I was, as a 21-year-old, having just had away-from-home experiences in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and London, and now my new home base would be Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When I arrived, the ship was immense, holding thousands of guests, and there were more than 1,000 of us who were staff and crew. I don’t know that I had actually seen a cruise ship in person before the moment I walked on one as the newest hire in the spa. My time there was incredible, my roommate, Leonard Bakulo, from Estonia, about ten years my senior, became like an older brother to me, as we spent six months as roommates in a small staff cabin. I wrote an article for FLEX Magazine, titled, Ship Shape, about what it was like being a weightlifter working on a cruise ship, and FLEX published the article in 2001, using photos of me and Leonard in their magazine. I think we even picked up a copy of it in a grocery store in the Caribbean island of St. Thomas and it was an amazing feeling.
Over the next few years I would visit nearly 30 countries in the Caribbean and northern Europe, working on three different Celebrity ships (Millennium, Mercury, and Constellation), in three different parts of the world (Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, and Northern Europe). I came home to Oregon in between contracts, up to a full year between my first and second ship contract, and only a few weeks in between my 2nd and 3rd contracts. And after getting feeling burnt out from the spa experience, I applied for a new position as a youth supervisor in the daycare program on board, which is what I did for my final two cruise contracts. I made some of the best friends of my life, working on that first cruise ship, with colleagues from 55 nations, and a close knit staff of 22 of us from the spa, many of whom I’m still connected with via Facebook twenty years later. Saying goodbye to Leonard was hard, as I accepted the fact that I would likely never see him again. Two years later, when my final cruise ship contract took me to northern Europe, we docked in Tallinn, Estonia, and there was Leonard to greet me and drive me around his town in his native country. Those were the days.
I loved so many aspects of cruise ship life, and if it wasn’t for my passion for bodybuilding, and feeling the necessity to have a proper gym, to get proper nutrition and proper sleep, none of which you get in adequate forms working on a cruise ship, I would have likely continued to work on board for years, and would probably be living in another country right now. I knew my third and final cruise ship contract would be my last, as I had ambitions I felt compelled to pursue, and I eventually said goodbye to my home base of Dover, England at the time, heading over to London to catch a flight, and returned home to Oregon in 2003 to manage the Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness brand I had created in 2002, and compete in my first bodybuilding competition that year.
Becoming a Vegan Bodybuilder
I’d like to think that my Vegan Bodybuilding career really started in 2001, because I went through the whole process of preparing to compete on stage and even registered for the competition, but as a result of getting mono, I didn’t actually experience of the rush of stepping on the bodybuilding stage until 2003 when I made my debut competition within the International Natural Bodybuilding Association (INBA) at a show in California. I came in 4th place out of 7 competitors in my weight class of 176 pounds, and I was hooked. I knew I had so much opportunity to improve.
Robert’s first bodybuilding competition in California in 2003.
By now, my www.veganbodybuilding.com website had really taken off. This was before the days of Facebook or other social media platforms other than MySpace, and our online community forum was thriving. With thousands of members, it became a place for vegan athletes to connect online, and often in person too, within particular regions. Some people, multiple couples in fact, met through my website forum and got married and started families together. I made some of the best friends of my life from that online community forum, and it started to give momentum to the vegan lifestyle as a viable option in athletics. Though most seemed to be weightlifters, we had a community of athletes of all types.
At this stage, now at age 23, I weighed 193 pounds, up 73 pounds from when I became vegan eight years prior, and had effectively shown that one can build muscle without animal protein, even if I was built to be a long-distance runner, which came naturally to me — unlike bodybuilding, which was far more challenging based on my body’s desire to remain lean, light weight, and quick with long-lasting endurance. I chose bodybuilding over running anyway, and I wasn’t alone. There was a newfound interest in “vegan bodybuilding” that never existed before, and it was so rewarding to be part of that amazing community which thrived for more than a decade until the platforms of Facebook and Instagram grabbed most of the attention.
Robert in 2003, weighing 193 pounds, preparing to compete as a bodybuilder for years to come.
While my enthusiasm for bodybuilding was at an all-time high, and building and nurturing a large online community felt like anything but work, and was a pure joy to experience, I continued to train to get back on the bodybuilding stage. I don’t believe that I competed in 2004, taking the route that many professional bodybuilders would take to embrace an “offseason” of growth. Basically, without spending many weeks dieting for the competition stage, one could just keep training, adding more mass and strength, building more muscle, before eventually going through that cutting phase preparing for competition.
Winning my First Bodybuilding Competition
I trained hard, and wouldn’t you know it, in 2005, another INBA competition was being held in my home state of Oregon in nearby Portland, less than a 90-minute drive from my hometown. Bodybuilding competitions are held all over, but primarily in California, so to find one nearby was exciting for me. I registered for the competition, invited friends and family to attend, which they did, and I won my weight class (176 pounds), and became a champion vegan bodybuilder for the first time! This gave me a title that opened up more doors for me to be interviewed by local newspapers, magazines, and national and international publications. It was really a major milestone and stepping stone in my career.
Robert after winning his first bodybuilding competition in 2005.
Winning a bodybuilding competition isn’t easy, because you have to find the right balance of muscle size, symmetry, definition, and conditioning. Having taken some time off after my 4th place finish in my debut competition, I was able to grow a bit, add more muscle, work on my posing and presentation, and rely on my work ethic to carry me through to becoming a champion.
Growing up as a competitive runner, I became accustomed to allowing my work ethic to dictate my results. In a pure guts sport of long distance running, laying everything on line, exhausting oneself completely, I always counted on my ability to outwork others to experience success. It was just a mindset I had. I felt like I could endure more pain, or push myself harder, and it came from within my heart and my mind and that is what propelled me. I took that same approach to bodybuilding, and I always wanted to be the hardest worker in the gym, knowing that bodybuilding wasn’t going to come easy for me and that I would have to work harder than others who were more built for it, to achieve the same or better results.
That same year, in 2005, I produced a documentary called Vegan Fitness Built Naturally, and went on a speaking tour about my transformation from skinny farm kid to champion vegan bodybuilder, selling DVDs and Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness t-shirts along the way. The film included plant-based athletes, Brendan Brazier and Tonya Kay, and from that connection with Brendan, I landed a job with Vega, also in 2005, which I would sustain for a full decade. Vega was a brand new plant-based sports nutrition brand from Canada, and I helped them launch in the US in 2006.
The DVD cover of Vegan Fitness Built Naturally.
Building a Vegan Bodybuilding Community
I started out sending Vega packets out with DVD and Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness clothing orders that I shipped out in 2005 and 2006, but then I got an actual real job at Vega. I became the Vega sales rep for the state of Oregon, and relocated to Portland in 2006. I introduced Vega to Whole Foods Market in my region and got it carried in that popular store chain, as well as others throughout the state. But after a few years, it was wearing on me, and I wanted to do another role for Vega that was closer to my interests. Rather than going from store to store selling Vega to health food and grocery stores, I had something else in mind. I had already represented Vega at a number of trade shows and even some fitness events like marathons where we had a Vega booth, and I wanted more of that. Therefore, I got in my car and drove to Vancouver, British Columbia, to my boss’s house, and asked Vega owner, Charles Chang, if I could take Vega on the road and exhibit at all the major vegan and vegetarian festivals in America, selling and promoting Vega from a vendor booth. Charles agreed, and before I knew it, I was a frequent flyer with VIP airline status and was going from coast to coast, from about 2008-2013.
That sales position with Vega, and the role I created for myself to go on the road, gave me the opportunity to tour all over America as a public speaker, and as an exhibitor for Vega at vegan festivals and fitness expos from all corners of the country, from Seattle to Miami, and from Los Angeles to Boston, and I spent years sharing my passion for vegan bodybuilding with diverse audiences. Charles not only gave me a platform to promote his brand, which he co-created with Brendan Brazier, but he allowed me to grow as a speaker, as an activist, and as a professional. He even let me sell my DVDS and t-shirts from the Vega booth at specific events,, knowing that my personal brand was closely tied to the Vega brand, as I played Robin to Brendan’s Batman as athlete representatives of the brand.
While I was working for Vega, I was still spending every other waking moment building my own Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness brand, hoping that someday I could be running my own business, managing my own brand. With Charles’ support, I grew my Vegan Bodybuilding brand, established myself as a public speaker, and continued to cultivate my online forum community to reach all-time highs in popularity. We reached a point where we decided to provide an opportunity for our forum members to meet in person at a gathering of forum members, and I created the Vegan Vacation in 2006 which I hosted in Portland, Oregon for three consecutive years. Dozens of people attended yearly.
In 2007, for example, we had forum members attend our week-long hangout event in Portland and the Oregon Coast visiting from five different countries, including people from as far away as Australia, Sweden, and Germany. That was also one of the great times of my life, getting a chance to meet people in person that I had been in touch with online for years. In 2008 we had our last official Vegan Vacation event because I would later focus on new projects and try to move the Vegan Vacation to Southern California to take advantage of the weather, the most famous gym in the world, the outdoor gyms like Muscle Beach, and the amazing vegan food, but I couldn’t get it off the ground and the Vegan Vacation was retired. We did bring it back many years later and hosted it in Las Vegas, but it just wasn’t the same and wasn’t very well attended.
As a result of the 2008 Vegan Vacation, where I met Giacomo Marchese and Dani Taylor, who also met each other on our forum, and in person during that same trip, and who years later got married, I decided to work on a new documentary about vegan bodybuilders. Giacomo was to be one of the key featured athletes, along with me and our friend Jimi Sitko. We filmed for months, with aspirations of releasing Vegan Brothers in Iron, but we ultimately ran out of funding, resources, and decided to move on and pursue other things.
Becoming a Champion Vegan Bodybuilder for the Second Time
During the filming of that documentary, I got into the best shape of my life at the time, and Giacomo, Jimi, and I competed on the bodybuilding stage together multiple times. Giacomo and I squared off on stage in Portland, and the three of us competed together in Phoenix, Arizona with Jimi finishing with the highest placing at that show. Giacomo and I trained together for months in 2009, and I eventually won my second bodybuilding competition that year, in Oregon, as a result of one of my best friends pushing me to get better. I became the INBA Northwestern USA Natural Bodybuilding Champion in my division and weight class for the second time in five years, and I was ready to go out on a high note, hanging up my posing trunks in favor of pursuing another longtime goal.
Robert winning his 2nd bodybuilding competition in 2009.
Robert becoming a champion bodybuilder for the second time.
Giacomo and I, and our film team, had a great time filming that year, even if that project wasn’t meant to be. It wouldn’t be the last time we would work together, and after Giacomo and Dani moved to Portland where I was living at the time, we embarked on numerous future projects together. Spoiler alert, more than a decade later, Giacomo, Dani, and I are still working together, and we’re still building community and bringing people together.
Retiring from Bodybuilding to Pursue another Lifelong Dream
By the end of 2009, weighing 195 pounds at my heaviest, and having won my second bodybuilding competition, after competing within five different bodybuilding federations over the years, from the National Physique Committee (NPC), to the International Natural Bodybuilding Federation (INBF), the Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders (OCB), and aforementioned INBA, and another small regional federation out of Washington State, I ultimately decided to retire from competitive bodybuilding after a run from 2003 through 2010.
When my bodybuilding career came to an end, when I was only 29 years old, I went back to my roots and embraced the only other thing I wanted to do in my life as a career, aside from pro wrestling, and I wrote my first book. Truth be told, by age 8 in 3rd grade, I knew that I would become an author someday. Perhaps I was inspired by my father who had authored so many books, and it was just something I enjoyed and continued to pursue through the rest of school, and even while working on cruise ships, I was writing what I hoped would be a completed book someday.
I took writing classes throughout my life, had a writing coach in high school, and even had a literary agent by 2008. After failed book publishing attempts in 2008, getting turned down by every publisher for a motivational self-help book I had written, I finally completed a more than 300-page book, titled Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness. I exhausted my resources during the process, and I was sitting at a crossroads where I had finally officially completed a book, and the only thing left to do was print it, but I didn’t have the money to pay to self-publish it. Charles saw how passionate I was about writing, and knew of my dreams of becoming an author, and loaned me the money to print my first book, which is something I will never forget. I indeed did self-published the book, Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, in April 2010, just weeks after my 30th birthday.
Finally, a published author at age 30.
Inside the front cover of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness.
I was living in Los Angeles at this point, trying to “make it” as an author and public figure of sorts, long before the title of “influencer” had been established in social media circles. Like many aspiring successful authors, I hit the road that spring, less than two months after my book came out in print, and I was literally selling books out of the trunk of my car as I spoke at tour events that I set up myself in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Washington D.C., and elsewhere, as I drove from Los Angeles all the way to New York City. My first major speaking event was at the Whole Foods Market World Headquarters in May of 2010, which was arranged by Rip Esselstyn. I also spoke at a potluck at Rip’s house, and other venues in Austin, Texas before continuing east.
I had already experienced a successful book launch at a major vegetarian festival in Seattle in April, had sold nearly 1,000 copies online, and my cross country trip was an opportunity for me to reach people in various often untapped regions with my Vegan Bodybuilding message, not just in vegan hot spots like Seattle, Portland, and L.A.. I never would have imagined that after Seattle and Portland, I would have my initial book tour stops in places like Texas, and couldn’t have predicted places like New Orleans, Louisiana and Jackson, Mississippi would be some of my first stops, but they were, and it was meaningful.
My Writing Career Almost Ended as Quickly as it Started
But once again, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, everything came to a halt. I was only a few weeks into my road trip, after an extended stay in Texas for a full week or longer, and I had been spending many nights sleeping in my car from city to city because I couldn’t always afford a motel room, and I didn’t always have a friend to stay with, though sometimes I would make suggestive posts on Facebook that I was in a given town, looking to see if anyone wanted to meet up, when really I was hoping someone would realize I was in town and offer to host me and give me a place to stay for the night. That was during a time when couch surfing was common and I was well connected on Facebook. I also had a major dilemma. As a self-published author, I had to pay for large amounts of books to be printed at a time back then, in quantities of 250, 500, 750, or 1,000, and had to pay in full. Print on demand wasn’t an option with the publishing company in my native Oregon that I was working with. I was still accepting online orders, but didn’t have books to send out, and without knowing when I would get enough orders to have the funds to print more books, I just couldn’t morally accept book orders anymore from my website, and I was stuck.
Shipping books at a local post office in Virginia during my cross country tour.
Alas, I ran out of books to sell, didn’t have enough money to print more books, and wasn’t comfortable accepting online book order payments without knowing when I could ship a customer their book, so my dream came to an end mere weeks after I set off on my journey from Los Angeles in pursuit of one of the goals I cared most about in my life. I was stranded in New York City. I had to phone my mom and ask for money so I could keep going. I received some financial assistance from her so I could start heading west. My writing career was all but over just shortly after it started. I couldn’t make ends meet and I was devastated. I remember sleeping in my car in Tennessee, feeling sorry for myself.
Robert sleeping in his car on a book tour, trying to make it.
I had failed. And I had failed publicly, and in the way that hurt me the most because it was while doing something that I cared the most about. It was my dream to be an author. Being a wrestler didn’t work out, I didn’t have a lot of skills to fall back on, I was years removed from working as a massage therapist, which ended when my cruise contract ended nearly a decade prior, and I was at a real crossroads, contemplating my future on that Tennessee night, reduced to sleeping in my Prius with my belongings at a rest stop. I posted something rather dark on Facebook, just sharing how I was feeling as a failure with no money to my name and no plan ahead of me. And like good friends do, some reached out immediately, and helped me see purpose in my pursuit and encouraged me to keep moving forward. I needed to change my perspective and approach my future with a different attitude.
After some successful appearances with my new book, including write-ups in IronMan Magazine, decent online sales (when I actually had inventory to sell), and some successful speaking events on tour (even though the reality of my whole circumstance was far from a real success), my book was acquired by a publisher in Tennessee (Book Publishing Company), and I didn’t have to worry about having the money to print books anymore. I could just promote the books and get royalty checks, so that’s what I did. I even drove to their headquarters on my way home to Oregon, which is about an hour outside of Nashville to sign my book over to Book Pub. Co., and sealed the deal with a hug, rather than a handshake. I would later return to Summertown, Tennessee many times, to sign up to 700 books in a weekend, build a relationship with the publisher, and grow my book sales. They had the luxury to print 5,000 copies at a time for a fraction of the cost for me to print 250 or even 1,000 at a time, and it was a relief and an awakening. I was more at ease and determined to keep my dream alive. That book went on to sell 20,000-25,000 copies to date.
Signing books at Book Publishing Company in Summertown, Tennessee in 2010.
A New Day Was Dawning for a Struggling Author and Recently Retired Bodybuilder
As things started to come full circle for me in many ways, I was invited to be a guest speaker on the Holistic Holiday at Sea Vegan Cruise in 2011. I had actually been invited years prior, but I wasn’t able to go. This time, I was ready. I had spent some of the absolute best years of my life between ages 21-23 working on cruise ships around the world, and had a strong affinity for the cruise ship lifestyle, interacting with people, primarily staff and crew, from so many different nations.
It was on the very first night of the cruise, just shortly after we set sail that I met the woman who would become my wife. Karen and I met during the welcome sail away party as we left Fort Lauderdale, and we have been together ever since, celebrating 10 years in a matter of days from the time I am writing this article in mid-February, 2021. I would go on to speak on that cruise for the next 10 consecutive years until COVID-19 halted the cruise industry, and Karen joined me on every single one of those cruises.
Robert meeting Karen on a Vegan Cruise in 2011.
As I was still struggling to make it as an author, a full year after my first book was published and acquired by a publisher, I got a unique invitation that would once again change my life in numerous ways. I got a call from the creator of Forks Over Knives, Brian Wendel, asking if I would work for them to help release the film. Clearly my social media presence at that time was being noticed, and I was rewarded with an opportunity that would change the way I looked at food.
I worked in grassroots campaigns to help market Forks Over Knives, and even went on tour to theater screenings as far away as British Columbia, Canada, and to Washington D.C. to screen the film for members of Congress. That unique opportunity to work for Forks Over Knives led to me taking Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s plant-based nutrition online course through the Center For Nutrition Studies at Cornell University.
Robert working at the Forks Over Knives office in Santa Monica, California.
That course, and Dr. Campbell’s work changed the way I viewed protein, supplements, and processed foods. He challenged what I thought I knew about protein consumption from my bodybuilding perspective, and what I had learned from muscle magazines. He also made me question my use of sports supplements, and shared the hidden dangers in processed foods, which contain a massive surplus in calories, largely from oils, that lead to excess weight gain, plaque buildup in arteries, and can lead to common diseases from obesity to hypertension to heart disease. I learned so much more, and I was inspired to give it a try.
I challenged Dr. Campbell’s theories at first, questioning what this slim, lean nutrition guy knows about building vegan muscle. And then I quickly recognized that Dr. Campbell had been studying nutrition longer than I had been alive, and that was enough for me to honor his work and at least experiment with a lower protein, supplement-free (aside from Vitamin B12), whole-food, plant-based diet, which meant reducing or eliminating processed foods.
After nearly a full decade working for a supplement company, I stopped taking all supplements, aside from Vitamin B12, and have followed the same supplement-free (aside from B12) approach since 2012. Inspired by Dr. Campbell’s course through eCornell, I wrote the book Shred It!: Your Step-by-Step Guide To Burning Fat and Building Muscle on a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet, and the book was endorsed by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, which is still one of the great honors of my life.
Robert with T. Colin Campbell and Karen Campbell in 2011.
I Caught the Break I had been Looking For
Immediately after Shred It! was released, I received an all-expenses-paid trip for a speaking tour in Australia, and my 3-week tour in Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne was so successful, I went back the following year, in 2015, for another 3-week tour in those same cities.
An all-expenses-paid trip to speak in London followed in 2016 where I finally met my long-time website manager of 10+ years, Richard Watts, creator of Vegan Sidekick, for the first time in person, as well as Nimai Delgado who was on a speaking panel with me. In a strange way that perhaps only internet-forum-users would understand, Richard was one of my closest friends for an entire decade, even though we had never met, and we didn’t even do video chats or anything like that. It was our many years on the Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness forum that brought us together and kept us together. Meeting him in person, giving him a big hug in London, was something I’ll never forget. In fact, even though it was just a 2-day vegan festival, and he had to go back to his town after the event and Karen and I had our own plans as tourists in London for the next few days, my eyes watered up as I said goodbye to him.
In addition to meeting Richard, and Nimai, who is one of the most popular vegan athletes in the world today, I had the opportunity to meet many people I had been in touch with over the years, including a fellow vegan athlete I had been in touch with since 2001. It was just an amazing experience to be in another country in a different continent, and to see so many familiar faces I had only known as online personalities. The 20,000-person vegan expo in London is something I would most definitely like to return to someday.
Robert with Richard Watts in London, England in 2016.
The next year I had an all-expenses-paid trip to speak in China, which was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I could really feel things starting to come together for me as an author and speaker, even if I never made it with my other career goal as a pro wrestler, and my competitive bodybuilding career was behind me. It was kind of surreal, actually. I was invited to speak at ChinaFit, a large fitness convention, kind of like the Arnold Classic of Beijing. Everything arranged in advance, and this was my first major international trip as a vegan speaker without Karen joining me, as she did for Australian, European, Caribbean, and Canadian tours. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a friendly team of associates of ChinaFit, including my translator who would be with me during the full 5 days in China. We went to dinner, and then they dropped me off at a fancy hotel in the Olympic district, the same hotel the reporters stayed at during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. After a night’s sleep following the long trip, they took me to the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square, among other places. The plan was to go to see the Great Wall, but it would have required an early morning, and I really needed rest, knowing I would be speaking at a fitness expo for days.
By time I got to the ChinaFit expo the following day, I realized my photo was on the cover of the program in one of the key areas of the convention, representing the entire healthy living aspect of the whole show, and my image was on posters throughout the venue. It really was surreal. I ended up taking some event programs and posters home with me and I still have them. At times I felt out of my element, with thoughts such as, “Do I really deserve this? Have I earned this? Am I good enough?” And I just took it all in stride, and on the long flight home I wrote a newsletter blog post about my experience.
Robert on tour in Beijing, China at the ChinaFit Expo in 2017.
Robert on posters throughout the ChinaFit Expo Hall.
From sleeping in my car, and running out of resources to simply drive myself to a city to give a book talk to having all-expenses paid trips and staying in nice hotels in major international cities, I realized I had come a long way, and it was a very rewarding feeling. Shred It! went on to become a hugely popular self-published book, selling more than 20,000 copies and helped me further establish myself as a legitimate writer and author. I had also made it on the cover of four magazines at this point (three times on the cover of Vegan Health & Fitness Magazine), and had been featured in dozens of others, and had spent more than a decade writing articles for my website and numerous other websites. Writing was becoming essentially my full-time gig, years removed from my job with Vega which came to an end in 2015, and I was ready to embrace it and start to self-identify as an author and a writer, even if it still felt awkward to describe myself as such.
Also in 2017, just days before Christmas, I released a new book, titled, Plant-Based Muscle, co-authored with my then training partner and one of my all-time best friends, Vanessa Espinoza. As a result of training with Vanessa for two years, I grew to weigh more than 205 pounds, my all-time biggest at that point, and was without a doubt the strongest I had ever been in my life. Vanessa pushed me in ways I hadn’t been pushed before, even though I was obsessed with work ethic. She showed me that I still have more to give, and more to offer, not only to my workouts, but to my audience. I became the best version of myself while training with Vanessa and was honored to write a book with her.
Robert on a Plant-Based Muscle book and speaking tour with Vanessa Espinoza in 2018.
Becoming Vegan Strong
With the release of our new book, Vanessa and I toured all over the west coast in 2018, primarily all throughout the state of California, and in Arizona where we both moved to from Colorado where we had initially met (and where Karen and I spent two years living). What started as a Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness expo tour with Vanessa and other vegan bodybuilders in 2018, morphed into a Vegan Strong fitness expo tour that would debut in 2019, and it continued to grow and expand. Our tours were really fun and successful in many ways, meeting lots of people and selling books and apparel, until COVID-19 stopped all in-person tours in March of 2020.
Vegan Strong is a non-profit vegan athlete organization showing the world that plants have all the protein you need, and I became the director of Vegan Strong as soon as I shelved my Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness tour in favor of a larger Vegan Strong tour with more resources to work with. What started out as a sponsored Vegan Strong race car in 2017 in the NASCAR and affiliated stock car racing circuits, which I was a team member of, in support of driver, Leilani Munter, turned into a Vegan Strong fitness expo tour that I would manage with fellow champion vegan athletes.
When my Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness tour was still in full swing in 2018, I was reunited on tour with some of my all-time best friends, and long-time colleagues, Giacomo and Dani, and collectively we toured from coast to coast. When Vegan Strong replaced the Vegan Bodybuilding Fitness tour, Giacomo and Dani joined me in exhibiting and speaking at the largest fitness expos in the country, which we have been doing since the beginning of 2019, including the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. In fact, Arnold walked right past our Vegan Strong booth in 2019 at the very event I met him at 18 years prior, and just the day before my 39th birthday.
The Vegan Strong Team on tour in Los Angeles, California in January 2020.
A Quarter Century of Vegan Living
Fast-forward to today, in 2021 and I’m still working with Vegan Strong, and still training hard. While we haven’t toured in over a year due to COVID-19, in late 2020, we created the world’s best monthly vegan box, The Vegan Strong Box. Giacomo and Dani have been central to the creation of this project, and it’s another feeling of coming full circle, having met and first worked with them more than a decade ago. With hundreds of monthly customers, we provide an assortment of plant-based foods, beverages, snacks, sports nutrition products, specialty items, Vegan Strong branded items, high value coupons, and more, to a vegan and veg-curious audience.
Giacomo and Dani are back living on the East coast where they are from, and my wife and I are back in Colorado, where we plan to stay for a while, but we keep in touch weekly to assemble the best of what the plant-based community has to offer in our Vegan Strong boxes, working with more than 120 plant-based brands. Even if this project were to come to an end at some point, the three of us, who filmed a documentary more than a decade ago, and worked together off and on over the years, will likely keep the good times rolling, and find more ways to collaborate in the future.
Giacomo, Dani, and Robert have worked together for more than a decade.
The Biggest Project of My Life
In addition to my work with Vegan Strong, I’ve also been working behind the scenes for the past two years on a new book that will be released in 2021. In fact, this new book, titled, The Plant-Based Athlete, is the biggest project of my life. It’s really the culmination of my quarter century vegan athlete lifestyle, and the best product I have ever produced.
Just 12 years ago, I was getting rejected by publishers, and I subsequently self-published four books over the past decade, keeping my dream alive. After so many ups and downs as an author trying to make it, I landed a book deal with the world’s second largest publisher, turning down an offer from the world’s largest publisher in the process. My new book, The Plant-Based Athlete, co-authored by Matt Frazier from No Meat Athlete, with a foreword by Dr. Michael Greger from NutritionFacts.org, will be available for pre-order by March 2021, and will be in every bookstore in America in June 2021.
And wouldn’t you know it, all these years later, the very first official endorsement we received for this groundbreaking book was from none other than Dr. T. Colin Campbell who inspired me on this particular nutrition path. The words grateful and honored seem to be inadequate to describe how much that means to me, particularly because of the words Dr. Campbell chose to use to describe my work and my 25-year vegan journey.
My childhood friend, Jordan, has been with me every step of the way, helping me in some capacity with every book I have written. Like my father, and my sister, Jordan now has his PhD, and that iconic trip we took to meet Arnold on our 21st birthdays now pales in comparison to the 2-weeks we spent in Thailand together, just after he got married, and before I got married. Our wives were with us too, and it was one of the greatest times of my life. Jordan and I were actually in pre-school together, our moms still keep in touch, and to this day, he has been there, more than anyone, during each major step of the way on my 25-year vegan journey. He even surprised me by showing up at one of my final tour events before COVID-19 shut down events, and I was pleased to be in the best shape he had ever seen me in, at nearly age 40.
When Jordan showed up at a Vegan Strong tour event in Portland, Oregon in 2019.
The Current State of the Vegan Bodybuilding Climate
The world has changed a lot over the past quarter century. When I became vegan, the Internet was just coming of age, and veganism was still incredibly fringe, and most people hadn’t heard of it, let alone even knew someone who was vegan.
Two and a half decades later, many people now have the realization that for their health, they probably should go vegan, rather than the common thought process years ago, like my parents had, that it could be dangerous and unrealistic. Well, 25 years after the most influential decision I ever made, I am now weighing 220 pounds, a full 100 pounds heavier than when I became vegan; I have written five books on the subject; and now at almost age 41 at the time of this writing, I am the biggest and strongest I have ever been, and I feel like I’m just getting started.
My parents are still omnivores, but are incredibly supportive of my vegan lifestyle, my sister and her vegan partner are raising a vegan daughter, my vegetarian brother has two mostly plant-based kids, and my other brother, Ryan, the one my parents jokingly said many years ago, is the only one who turned out right, is a cattle farmer in our native Oregon with his wife and kids. We have different fundamental views, but we all get along these days.
Today, I’m living in northern Colorado with my wife and our two rescue dogs, Benny and Ellie. Vanessa moved back to her native Colorado and lives just a little more than an hour away. I’ve rarely seen her in the full year we’ve been back in northern Colorado due to COVID-19, but I look forward to having my old training buddy again. My youngest brother, Clarke, is also just over an hour from me in the Denver area, and I have the privilege of being one of the all-time great uncles for his little ones.
A New Turning Point in my Life
I have a feeling my life is about to change. I’m on the verge of releasing the biggest project of my entire life, my new book, The Plant-Based Athlete, something that has been a lifetime in the making. And to this day, I’m in touch with my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Young, who helped me believe that someday I could grow up to become a real author. And here I am, weeks away from my new book becoming available for sale, and mere months from seeing it on store shelves. I believe it will become a bestseller, and doors will open for me and for veganism to expand within the mainstream culture. I may not have to sleep in my car anymore when I go on tour, and I might have opportunities ahead of me that I haven’t yet imagined, but I will always be a small-town farm kid at heart, feeling immense gratitude for all of the experiences that led to be making the life-changing decision that I no longer wanted to contribute to animal suffering.
Back in 1995, they said it wasn’t possible for me to achieve my fitness goals without animal protein. But over the years, I nearly doubled in size, won bodybuilding competitions, wrote books about building plant-based muscle, and even stepped in the ring with a world champion pro wrestler (Austin Aries), and if just for a moment, I fulfilled that childhood dream too.
Summarizing my 25-Year Vegan Journey
If I had to summarize the past quarter century of my plant-based athlete lifestyle, based on my experiences, I would say that the reasons why I found success has a direct relationship with having specific, meaningful goals, and working hard, consistently, to achieve them. There has always been some sort of belief in self that propelled me too, from my early days as a teenage vegan bodybuilder, to my most challenging and darkest days as a perceived failure, I just kept believing that there were brighter days ahead for me and for the vegan movement.
I’ve learned that some of the most important things you could ever do are to believe in yourself, and show up day after day following your passions, working hard to make them happen. It’s certainly not easy, and there are always risks involved with following your heart and giving everything you have to something you care deeply about, but in the end, the rewards are often worth the investments, and that’s often where happiness is found.
Robert at age 21 (185 pounds) and age 40 (215 pounds)
I’ve said many times that consistency is one of the most important words in the world. If you believe in something, embrace it with all the enthusiasm you can muster, even if others don’t believe it, or don’t believe in you. Try anyway. Work hard anyway. Believe in yourself anyway. Keep moving forward anyway. The road may be challenging, but it’s the journey that matters, and to keep the journey going, you have to keep showing up and giving it what you’ve got.
There will be tough days, days you feel like quitting and giving up, but the rewards, the fulfillment, and the joy come from the results of showing up on the days you don’t feel like it. Because in the end, every action you take along the way leads to where you’re going and where you’ll eventually end up. I think of all the times (and there have been so many) that I thought about giving up and just doing something different with my life, and looking back, connecting the dots, I can see that I was just one step away, and had I given up, I would have missed what I had been seeking the whole time.
If you were to ask the 8-year-old me if someday I believed that I would be an author, I would have responded, “absolutely.”
And if you were to ask the 10-year-old me all the way up to the 20-year-old me if I thought that someday I would step in the ring with a world champion pro wrestler, I would have responded, “absolutely.”
And the reason why I was able to achieve both of those things, that were deeply personal to me, and many other meaningful achievements and outcomes along the way is because I never doubted myself because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I believed in myself wholeheartedly, and I showed up, day after day, working toward making dreams come true.
It also wasn’t always about me either. I had other reasons that compelled me to want to make a difference. And those go back to my childhood days on the farm, wanting all animals to be able to live their lives free of fear, pain, and suffering, so that is what I dedicated my entire adult life to doing, promoting a compassionate vegan lifestyle, leading by example as a plant-based athlete. Though we’ve made some progress for animal rights and awareness of veganism over the past 25 years, I feel like we’re just getting started. And that compels me to want to give everything I have to my next quarter century of being a plant-based athlete.
From 120 pounds to 220 pounds over a 25-year period of vegan bodybuilding.
— Robert Cheeke
Founder of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness