I view motherhood as a superpower, the quality that connects people to each other. When I think of motherhood, I think of Pando, The Trembling Giant, the collection of trees in Utah deemed as a singular organism because their root systems are bound. When I heard La Tosha's story, I felt that we were connected by our own root system of mother to mother. I write from this place.
Thank you, La Tosha, for your trust in capturing the essence of your experience. Thank you, Sisters of Iron, for housing these stories, these powerhouse women.
Indomitable: Powerlifter La Tosha Cleaver
Written by Janna Moretti
La Tosha sits before a mirror, presses her finger onto the sticky side of a jewel, then flips the jewel and sticks it beneath her eye, a diamond of smaller diamonds already fixed at the center of her forehead—designs like patterns worn by African tribal warriors. Getting ready is part of La Tosha’s mental process before stepping onto the platform.
“It puts me into that warrior mindset,” she said. “I’m channeling African Warrior Queens.”
Big hair, big, bright, dangly earrings. Her eyeshadow and lipstick match. La Tosha Cleaver is The Deadlift Diva.
If you’ve watched La Tosha lift, then you know that that this woman harnesses something otherworldly. Finger pointed to the sky, her energy sends chills. The intensity, the rage. The spirit. But La Tosha did not always roar like this—at least not outwardly. La Tosha, the sage woman we see at 43 years old, is a long way from the 19-year-old single-mother she was, a mother of a child with a fatal brain disease, a mother of three before the age of 24. La Tosha fought her way against stigmas, downfalls, and tragic loss to be who she is today—an 8x IPL drug-tested World-Record holder, an ever-evolving mother, a master’s-degree recipient, a homeowner, the Business Manager of University of Texas at Tyler, ten thousand choices away from the Haliburton oil fields in Texas where she worked 12-hour night shifts before going home to take care of her family.
“So I would go home, go to work, watch my kids, go to work, go home,” La Tosha said. “I was just existing, not really living.” It wasn’t until her son received a grant to attend the YMCA that La Tosha began to use her time at the YMCA for herself too. She went to the weightroom, began on the machines and light free weights. Having played basketball in high school, she was athletic but had never pursued lifting as its own end. Then one day she saw some big guys throwing big weights and she walked over and said, “Show me how to do that.” She deadlifted 185 pounds that day and she was hooked. She started training, competing.
But back in 2000—before all this, before she was able to give to herself—La Tosha gave birth to her first-born child, Alavia, called “Lavi” by the family. Being a single-mom at the age of 19 was already a challenge, but when Lavi was 10 months old, doctors discovered a benign tumor in her brain. Lavi was diagnosed with ependymoma brain cancer, a disease where tumors impact the central nervous system among other brain functions. This is a rare cancer that most often results in fatality before the age of five. Lavi’s tumor was removed, but more tumors continued to show.
During this time La Tosha was unable to work outside of the home. At 21 years old, she spent her time taking care of Lavi, and eventually her mother too. La Tosha’s mother had been diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. As Lavi was going through bouts of chemotherapy, La Tosha’s mother was going through them herself. La Tosha’s father and brother worked out of the home to financially support the family while they all leaned on La Tosha’s work in the home as caretaker. Nursing two sick family members, making meals, cleaning, doing laundry, La Tosha had to be calm for everyone else, especially Lavi.
“I didn’t cry around her,” La Tosha said. “I tried to stay strong around her.”
At this time La Tosha discovered that she was pregnant with her second child, but because she did not want to burden the family with further stress, she kept the pregnancy a secret. “I couldn’t deal with it. My emotional capacity to deal with it, I just pushed it all down.” She stored it all away—her emotions, her thoughts. Stifled. The exhaustion associated with the first trimester of pregnancy did not prevent La Tosha from rocking Lavi to sleep or from helping her mother to the bathroom in the middle of the night. With all that pressure, external and internal—because a mother is never wholly separate from her child—La Tosha lived for others, already another life beginning inside of her body. But La Tosha continued to do what she had to do. She facilitated survival.
When Lavi was two years old, another tumor was discovered in her brain. After having gone through four brain surgeries and many rounds of chemo, a shunt, and other radiation treatments, this tumor proved to be inoperable. La Tosha pushed that information deep down and kept living for others. La Tosha went into labor alone, bore it all alone. Nobody even knew she was pregnant. Her baby was born—a healthy little boy. But 10 months later, Lavi passed away two weeks before her third birthday.
“You know, I kick myself,” La Tosha said. “I have lots of guilt behind that (time of being pregnant) because my son is the most smart, talented, beautiful boy. And I think about how I didn’t take care of him when he was inside of me, you know. And for him to come out so well … and I cursed to God: ‘Why would you do this to me, making me have another baby when I’m going through this with my daughter?’ But, when she passed away, he was 10 months old and he was my only reason for living after that. I did not want to get out of bed, but I knew I had this other baby to take care of. And I was like, ‘That’s why, God. That’s why you gave me this boy. So I would have a reason to live.’”
Around that time her mother had grown weary of the chemotherapy. She announced to the family and her minister that she had reconciled herself to a life without further medical intervention. Miraculously, she fully recovered.
“God knew I could not take losing both of them at the same time,” La Tosha said. Her mother has been cancer free for 20 years.
These are the jagged edges, the things La Tosha continues to work through. Of course she went to counseling. “My counselor told me, ‘You’re imploding from bottling things up, from pushing it all down. You have to let it out. You need to find a way to let it out.’” When La Tosha found powerlifting, she found the way to vent, no longer stabbing herself, no longer holding the things that cut her inside. “I am a rage lifter…. When I powerlift—when I’m on the platform, when I’m in the gym—that’s when I let the emotions out.”
La Tosha competed in powerlifting for several years, working through, working past, and just sitting with the places she holds for Lavi. La Tosha sustained a knee injury. For a while she competed in push-pull only, then after surgery, she worked her way back under the barbell—at first without weight then with light weight, then with heavy weight. La Tosha had already been through worse than physical injury, so it makes sense that she could work through physical injury coming out stronger on the other side. And she needs powerlifting too much to not work through it.
When gyms closed during the initial months of COVID, not having that outlet was devastating. She began to stagnate. La Tosha lost motivation for a while. She began gaining weight. Even after gyms opened back up, she struggled to build a routine that led to sustainable growth. See, what people who don’t powerlift may not understand is that lifting shows tangible growth. One week, a person may not be able to lift a particular weight—but then the next week she might. This registers as positive feedback to the mind. Growth. For some, it feeds more than the mind.
Once gyms reopened, La Tosha’s friend Jodie Duncan invited her to participate in Stacy “Bama” Burr’s seminar. La Tosha went to the seminar not anticipating any change to her current mental state. She agreed because Jodie was her friend, but she definitely did not go into it thinking she’d have a fundamental shift in her lifting journey. “But everything Stacy said was so profound, it just hit home, and it really lit my fire again,” she said. La Tosha began training with Stacy Burr that day and has been growing alongside her for the last two years.
“Working with Stacy was like learning a whole new world,” La Tosha said. “Basically, I’ve been a lifter for eight years, but there was so much I didn’t know, so many new things. She was a coach who encouraged me … you know, pushed me. She didn’t tell me, ‘You’re fat; you’re never going to win Best Lifter till you lose some weight.’ I would get those cues. Those things stick with you. You know, I heard those cues my whole life. You’re too skinny, too dark-skinned. You’re ugly.” There were times in La Tosha’s life that she wouldn’t even want to look at her face in the mirror when she brushed or teeth, washed her face.
Seeing La Tosha enter a room, you would never know that there was a time when the Deadlift Diva couldn’t see her own beauty, all that power. Those times have passed. Losing her daughter made other things bearable by comparison. But time does not erode Lavi’s presence. Motherhood and strength are inseparable.
“When I get ready to deadlift, I think about my daughter, how unfair it is that she’s not here anymore. It’s been almost twenty years, and the world moves on and forgets about … her. And I want her to know that I have not forgotten about her. And so when you see me go up to the deadlift bar, you see me point to the sky and the announcer says, ‘Oh, she’s pointing to God,’ or whatever, I’m like, No, I’m pointing to my daughter because I want her to know that I see her. And this is for her.”
Powerlifting is how La Tosha works through her rage, the suffering in life and loss; but, more than that, stepping onto the platform is a mode of communion between her and Lavi. Powerlifting is bringing Lavi’s memory to the present—all that power between spirit and flesh.
For those who wish to honor Lavi’s memory, consider donating to the National Brain Tumor Society. https://nbtsevents.braintumor.org/campaign/2023-lifting-for-lavi/c403766
La Tosha’s friend Jodie Duncan is hosting a powerlifting meet “Lifting for Lavi” scheduled for April 1, 2023, two days before Lavi’s 23rd birthday and the 20th anniversary of her passing. All proceeds from this event will be donated to the National Brain Tumor Society. https://www.rawironpl.com/events-1/lifting-for-lavi