The Chiseled Life gym in Columbia, Maryland, is buzzing with a soundtrack of weights clanging and lifters grunting. Then Tamara Walcott paces in front of the deadlift bar and the room stills. The men by the bench bar stop and turn, ready to see a world-record holder in action.
Walcott faces the bar and sets one foot in position, kicks back the other and places it a hip’s width apart. She flicks one wrist out in front of her, and then the other, showing off her long nails, painted yellow, a different design on each finger. Holding a squat briefly, she then stands up straight and bends over to take a grip on the bar. She starts pulling. “Let’s go!” the men shout. “Come on!” yells a woman leaning on the squat rack. Walcott pauses with the 455lbs load by her shins before lifting it up to the level of her hips. She sets the bar back down … then repeats the motion five more times.
Done with her first heavy lift of the day, Walcott starts taking off her wrist bands. The gym goers return to their own weights; grunts and conversation resume. Her accountability partner registers my shock and laughs. “Everyone stops to watch Tamara lift,” she says.
Walcott, to put if mildly, is strong. The 38-year-old mother of two set a world record for the women’s deadlift at the Arnold Sports Festival earlier this month, lifting 641lbs (290kg), or roughly the weight of an average-sized grizzly bear. She broke a record that she had set the previous year with style – her signature prep, along with her immaculate nails and hoops so big they could be worn as bracelets, caught the eyes of casual sports fans and professionals alike. But the professional powerlifter remembers a time when going up and down the stairs to do laundry would have been impossible, let alone lifting hundreds of pounds.
A self-described “food addict,” Walcott was in the middle of her divorce in 2017 when she found her weight ballooning. “I remember going through my divorce, crying in my closet, telling my sister, ‘I want to lose weight. I want to lose weight,’” she says.
“I was 415lbs. There’s literal times where I would buy an outfit – and I think that’s how I realized that I was getting too big – I kept having to buy new clothes. And I’m like, I just bought this, why is it not fitting? And I would go try something on that I wore the week before, and it was tight.”
Stepping back into a gym was daunting. Her sister, in one of those conversations from the closet in 2017, told her, “Tammy, I’ll go with you.”
“And she literally would drive 45 minutes, three days a week after work to come with me to start training when I was at my heaviest weight,” Walcott says. On nights she trained, Walcott would leave her 9-to-5 job as a residential property manager, make sure her kids were settled in for bed, and head to the gym, leaving her kids in the care of her mother.
She tackled her food addiction with a new one: exercise. When she craved food after a meal, “the new Tamara would get on the floor and do push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks. Now, I’m tired. I’m like, ‘Girl, sit your butt down, you ain’t hungry. You just tired.’” She laughs. “I’m still a food addict, but I don’t indulge in those things anymore.”
Walcott had taken dumbbell classes before, but it wasn’t until she entered a new gym in 2018 that she was introduced to powerlifting. “I saw all these people are lifting, there’s chalk everywhere. I’m like, what is going on? Why are these people screaming?” she says, laughing.
“And then I wanted to try it. I was able to take control of that. And I felt like everything else in my life started to have order. So people see this exterior change and think it’s great. But if they could truly tap into my mental [state] in the way that I think now, that I look at my body – like your body is your vessel, take care of your body, it’s only one you got – it’s like a [180 degree] change from how I used to think.”
Walcott lost 100lbs within a year. Her lifting took off. After working with her coach, Daniel Fox, for less than a year, she went to her first powerlifting competition at the end of 2018.
“When I first started, we heard a lot of things like, ‘Why are you wanting to lift? Like, ‘You’re not gonna lose weight lifting.’ But I did. ‘You shouldn’t bench, you’re gonna look like a man.’ But I don’t. People have even asked me online, like, ‘Are you a man? Are you really a woman or are you a man?’ I gave birth to two kids. I’m a woman. Why can’t I be strong? Why do you have to ask me those questions because I’m strong? You know what I mean? So it’s kind of to bring awareness to other women and other little girls that it’s okay to be strong because there’s other people like you, other women like me out there doing that as well.”
She recalls showing her first medal to her grandmother, the matriarch of her family who had fallen ill and was in home hospice in Maryland. The first time Walcott mentions her grandmother, who has since passed away, the emotion finds its way into her voice and her eyes water.
“When I got divorced, I didn’t know how I was going to make ends meet having gone from two incomes to one,” she says. But her grandmother, who worked as a cook in the Virgin Islands and whom Walcott, her siblings, and mother lived with growing up, had shown her it could be done, and with generosity too. “We didn’t have a lot,” she says, but her grandmother would regularly cook giant pots of food and feed the neighborhood. “I never felt like I was missing anything growing up. I always felt loved.”
“When I’m deadlifting, I think of her,” she says. “When she stopped being able to walk, we didn’t all know how to use [the lift to get her out of bed], and she didn’t feel safe and secure. So one day, I was like ‘Grandma, I got you,’ and I picked her up and put her in her chair or picked her up and put her back in her bed. And she used to say, ‘Oh my God, you dead lifted all this weight. Now you’re picking me up, you my human crane.’”
For a woman who exudes confidence, Walcott says she isn’t immune to self-doubt. In fact, her achievements were preceded by it.
“I sit and soak in and feel like – I may feel hurt in the moment. But I don’t stay there very long. That’s the one thing my grandmother used to say all the time is ‘Tammy, your current situation, is not your final destination,’” she says. “So there are days where I feel tired. There are days where I feel emotionally tapped. There are days where I don’t want to go to the gym, but I know that I’m not going to continue to feel that way forever.”
Going into the Arnold Sports Festival was one of those times. She ticked off the reasons not to go: She had just done a competition, she would be a powerlifter competing in a strongman competition, and she had never lifted the elephant bar, which is about two and a half feet longer and bends more than a normal deadlift bar.
“I’m going to embarrass all the power lifters, all the strong women are gonna laugh at me,” she remembers thinking. “Every competition, I’m always like, it’s my last. I’m not gonna do another one, this is my last competition.”
On the day of her event, Walcott wore red pants to celebrate women’s history month and donned large gold hoops. She flashed her nails painted red in her signature set up. When she wrapped her fingers around the elephant bar, it was the first time she touched it. “Have you ever done the pencil trick where you wiggle the pencil and it looks wobbly? That’s what the elephant bar feels like. When you lift it up, the weights are bouncing up and down, it’s pulling you back down to the ground.” She lifted 576lbs. Then she pulled 626.
I ask her what she was thinking. “Walking up to the bar, I’m thinking about my kids. I’m thinking about my grandmother, she was the matriarch of our family. And it’s just a lot of emotions running. So it’s almost like tunnel vision. I don’t hear the crowd. I don’t see anything. I see the bar. I don’t even see the weight on the bar. I just know I have to pick it up, because I have to do that for her.
“I take my headphones out right before I go to lift because I don’t want to hear the announcer. I don’t want to hear anybody else. I don’t want to hear how much weight is on the bar; I have a rough estimate of what my coach is gonna put on there.” This time she couldn’t escape the announcer’s voice riling up the crowd with how much she was about to lift: 641lbs. “The announcer kept saying it over and over. He kept on saying, ‘Come on guys,’ and I’m like, ‘Sir, I don’t want to know that!’”
Then she lifted it, holding it for a full second before dropping it. “I looked up, and I finally saw it was a good lift. I was like ‘Ah, thank God!’”
“It felt light. I definitely had more in the tank. Definitely,” she says, laughing at my reaction. “Yeah, I know. That’s crazy, right? It’s not that it’s impossible because I pulled 650[lbs] in the gym already, so that’s how I know I have more in the tank.”
Walcott is looking to exceed 650lbs in competition later this year, though she won’t tell me by how much. She does reveal that in 2022 she has her eyes on powerlifter April Mathis’ squat, total, and bench records, set 11 years ago. “So I’m chasing legends right now,” she tells me. “I haven’t hit my ceiling yet.”