I came to know Tammy through Instagram, where we support each other’s gains in strength. I admired her crack-of-dawn grind. And yeah, yeah, let’s not glamorize grind diligence because self-care, mental health, but self-love for some has everything to do with the grind. Tammy is an old-school stoic, a dying breed, one who doesn’t air her grievances publicly. She knows that change takes time and hurdles scaled and a whole lot of tripping, dusty knees. I think it is only because of the friendship we’ve developed that she shared some of her story with me. I am grateful for that.
Thank you for your trust, Tammy, and thank you to SOI for hosting these stories, these Sisters of Iron.
Tammy is a corrections officer. Her parents were corrections officers and her son is a US Marine. Her daughter is 12, but perhaps she too will have some sense of duty like the rest of the family. Tammy works for the Sheriff’s office escorting people in and out of the courthouses. For years she has worked in corrections, years spent in a women’s prison. How she ended up seeking that type of work has to do with her family’s past, and powerlifting is directly related to that past and to where she sees herself in the future.
Being an officer, Tammy has always had to be physically fit. She is no stranger to the weight room. She started at general fitness gyms to be strong for the job first, but also--she wanted to lose weight, that same old narrative. As she developed strength, she played with the idea of bodybuilding. The realization of the toll it would take on her and the family, and the fact that she didn’t like the idea of being on a stage being judged hit her. After more reflection she realized that what she liked was the feeling of being strong and what building that strength does for her mind—so she pursued powerlifting.
But it wasn’t just a matter of jumping into powerlifting. At the commercial gym she trained with a coach who worked with a lot of other women. Right before COVID shutdowns, there was a mock meet at her gym. “I did poorly, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” Tammy said. “It was just kind of thrown together.” She wanted to change her environment after that. She didn’t have time to chat in the mornings; she has to be in and out before work. Tammy wanted to find an environment with athletes, not just the general fitness population. She found a gym with no air conditioning, with people who have a different mindset. She was enthusiastic about her find, found an online coach, then she got injured.
She showed up to the gym with her arm in a sling, and a coach there began working with her. After some time together, he quit and then she was left without coaching direction. A lot of people would have given up frustrated by this point. “By now, I’ve had three coaches,” Tammy said. “I was getting a little discouraged. There were some guys at the gym who I’d see every morning at 5 a.m., and they put me in touch with their coach, Garrett." She and Garrett have been working together for a year now.
Tammy is always trying to get the guys at her job to work out too. “I’m the misfit, you know. The food Nazi. They’re trying to entice me to eat some of their food.” She just recently started teaching one of the guys how to deadlift. The folks who she works with—they are a close community. The officers with whom she works have to deal with a lot of pressure. They have to be prepared to respond and to protect people. They have to show restraint. They have to show a lack of emotion. She told me about some of the scenes she and other officers have witnessed, finding people who have suffered, died. “So I've been at this sheriff's office for 19 years. Prior to this I worked for the Department of Corrections at Connecticut, and I was 19 years old. You know, I worked in a woman's prison. So the things I've seen, experienced. I didn't have an outlet. So I did get into drinking. You know, I was involved in drinking. I was involved in bad relationships that led to domestic violence. I come from a family of correction officers—and guess what—they all came from violent family backgrounds. So there's nothing but violence, you know, around me. So my outlet was powerlifting.”
When asked about family support, she said, “My son will comment on my posts. And I tell him thanks for what you do, but you don’t know about this yet—but you will. You’ll need it like I do.” She means that he does not yet know what it means to have to have an outlet to process through having a job that is bound up in aggression. Being a cycle breaker in this sense means knowing intimately what it’s like navigating violent spaces and instead of becoming the perpetrator of it, choosing instead some other way of being in the world. Tammy knows this first hand and chose to be the protector.
These protective qualities come from a deeper-rooted space in Tammy’s life. Growing up, she witnessed family violence and ended up wanting to find work where she could help people. Tammy’s sister suffered a terrible injury jumping from a building to escape her abuser, who was beating her with a board. Tammy’s sister became paralyzed from the fall, and Tammy took care of her after her release from the hospital. “My sisters are 14 and 12 years younger than me. So I was there. I took care of them, you know. I felt responsible for what happened to her (the eldest), even though I wasn't there. I just felt responsible because I’m her big sister and I couldn't protect her. And then my other sister, as well with her mental health issues that she's endured under violence in her life as well … I couldn't have. I couldn't stop that, you know, and we lived in separate homes. But when they were younger, like I said. I was helping raise them because my mom and my stepfather worked crazy hours. It's just a lot of violence. Even when they were young there was violence. I remember my mother and my stepfather would get in a fight, and I would have to call the cops many times, and just have to put them (my sisters) in the car seats, because you know we're afraid when he’d get out of jail, he’d come after us.” Tammy’s sisters are always on her mind. “I want to say they inspire me. They inspire me to keep going. And of course, my children inspire me to keep going because I know if I was the person I was before, I would not be the mother I am today.”
Tammy became the person who is called when someone is in trouble. About different aspects of her identity, Tammy explained, “I’m not just Tammy Kaelin the deputy sheriff. I still am that,” but she sees herself as more than that too. “I want to be an/the example for my children and my grandchildren, and I want them to say, ‘Wow, my mother or my grandmother is a badass.’ Not because of the uniform, I'm not my job anymore. I used to be. But I'm more now. I want to lead by example. I want to inspire people. I want to inspire that one woman or one boy, mostly women, to listen, ‘Wherever you been in your life in that deep, dark hole, there is another way you can go, but you have to put that foot in front of the other to get there because nobody is going to give it to you.’” Tammy envisions opening her own gym one day where people can come together in camaraderie, healing, redemption, and strength.
Tammy will be competing in USPA's Rumble at the Beach in Holly Hill, Florida, on April 29th, 2023. Follow her lifting journey on IG @inkchic2