‘I want to be a whole person,’ says Jan, ‘not just a jock’
She doesn’t have a mustache or a thick Slavic accent, and she likes to quote the poetry of Wendell Berry. In defiance of every stereotype, pretty blond Jan Todd, 26, is generally recognized as the world’s strongest woman and reinforced her claim to the title by rewriting the powerlifting record books at last month’s competition in St. Louis.
Jan is certainly no dumbelle. She edited her college newspaper, got her master’s and teaches high school English in rural Nova Scotia, where she and husband Terry run a 75-acre farm. Sewing patchwork quilts, baking cinnamon buns, making preserves and gardening organically are passions too. “I want to be a whole person,” she says, “not just a jock.”
Indeed, Jan won the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Award back in Plant City (Fla.) High School. Then, at 19, she got a clue to her potential strength when she outscored her astounded father, a steelworker, on a grip-testing machine. Still, Jan never weightlifted till Mercer College in Macon, Ga. where she met Terry, a professor of sports history, who is the Babe Ruth-cum-Jim Fixx of weightlifting. (Now 41 and retired from the sport, he once held 15 world records and is about to finish his fourth book on the subject.) Their romance began at an outing when Jan flipped around a “caber” (a telephone-pole-size log used in Scottish highlands games). “There was something in the way she stepped up to that log and lifted it,” Terry recalls. “No giggling, no false modesty.” By the time they married three years later, Jan was working out beside Terry and poring over his collection of weightlifting literature. She was particularly struck by accounts of France’s Jane de Vesley, who in 1926 set the powerlift record for women of 392 pounds. Jan said, “I can beat that,” and, within 16 months, in 1975 she managed 394.5.
Powerlifting, unlike Olympic weight-lifting, includes no elegant balletic frills. It is a test of brute strength (the men’s record in Olympic-style over-the-head hefting is 564 pounds versus the powerlift mark of 934 pounds). In her last competition, Jan set women’s records (in the 181-pound division) in all three powerlift events: 402 pounds in the squat (grasping a weight off a rack, then dipping to a kneebend and rising again), 176 pounds in the bench press (receiving a weight while lying down, lowering it to the chest, then raising it again) and 424 pounds in the deadlift (crouching to grasp a bar on the floor, then straining to a standing position). Her total—1,002 pounds—was, of course, also a record, but last June at the Newfoundland championships she hit 1,127 pounds. At that time she weighed 196 and was in the unlimited division. Jan slimmed down because she was a contender for the ABC Superstars series, but ultimately was not selected. (One possible hitch: Her husband is a consultant for CBS Sports.)
Powerlifting, Terry insists, will not make women excessively muscular, but so far the sport has attracted about 500 females to 20,000 males. In fact, Terry suggests weightlifting as an alternative to jogging. It can help women reduce, condition their cardiovascular system and regain shape quicker after pregnancy (the Todds plan to have children eventually). Equally valuable, argues his wife, are the psychological benefits. “I’m much more sure of myself since I’ve begun lifting,” says Jan. “Strength should be an attribute of all humanity. It’s not a gift that belongs solely to the male of the species.”