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Sarah Pileggi
November 14, 1977
Jan Todd of Nova Scotia, farmhand, housekeeper and high school English teacher, lifts because she loves it
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November 14, 1977

The Pleasure Of Being The World's Strongest Woman

Jan Todd of Nova Scotia, farmhand, housekeeper and high school English teacher, lifts because she loves it

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The dead lift has been called "the great separator." It is the final event in the power set, the brutal test that brings power-lifting fans to their feet yelling. The contestant reaches down, grasps a bar lying on the floor at his feet and, using his hips and lower back as hinge and lever, raises himself to a standing position. Reinhoudt's world record in the dead lift is 885 pounds, almost 2� times his body weight. A hazard of dead lifting is that the flesh of the palms of the hands can tear from the strain.

The first national power-lifting championships were held in 1964 in York, Pa. An organizer of the contest and the winner in the super heavyweight division was a doctoral candidate in physical education from the University of Texas, Terry Todd, who at one time or another held 15 world records in the sport. Besides now being Jan's husband and coach, Terry, 39, is an associate professor of educational sociology at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the author of three books on strength, two of which will be published in January.

Terry Todd is 6'2�" and weighs 275 pounds. His shoulders and arms are almost unclotheable, even at stores that specialize in dressing weight lifters. But when he was competing he weighed 340, and no one knows what that is like who has not been there. In a chapter devoted to Don Reinhoudt in one of his books, Todd mentions Reinhoudt's remarkable friendliness and is reminded by it of certain breeds of large dogs, like Labradors and Newfoundlands and Great Pyrenees. "They seem to keep on wagging their tails, hoping that the effect of their size will be secondary to the effect of their friendliness." Because Todd has experienced the abrupt loss of weight that comes on the heels of retiring from competition, he writes convincingly of "the satisfactions and the sorrows of losing almost a third of yourself."

Terry had been retired for six years when he and Jan met at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., a small, rather progressive, liberal arts school of Baptist origin. He was a young, extremely visible associate professor of education, physical education and sociology, visible not only because of his size but also for his activist stance on the campus issues of the day. Jan was an undergraduate mover and shaker. "I called her �nberwitch," says Terry fondly. "She was never afraid to try anything. I guess I admired that most about her. She worked the whole time she was in school, she was active in campus politics, she edited the school newspaper for two years, something no one had done before, and she was one of the top two or three in her class. She was a natural force. Mount Rushmore. She had a sort of love-hate relationship with the college president. She was a thorn in his side when she was editing the paper, but once I heard him say, 'She's a helluva man.' That was his greatest compliment."

Jan and Terry took up residence in an old millhouse outside Macon at the beginning of Jan's senior year. Terry still lifted weights now and then, and Jan began to keep him company, at first working only with dumbbells to correct her round-shoulderedness, later with greater weights, but never to the point of really testing herself.

About a year after they were married, while Jan was working toward her master's degree in education, the couple went to Austin, Texas, Terry's boyhood home, for the Christmas holidays. One day as they were "taking a dose of iron pills" at the Texas Athletic Club, a very small woman entered the place and began doing dead lifts. While Jan watched, absorbed, the woman, who weighed only 113 pounds, gradually added weight to the bar until she reached her limit—225 pounds, twice her own weight. Jan struck up a conversation and learned that the woman competed occasionally in the bantamweight class at men's power-lifting contests and that once she had even placed third. Before long Jan was trying some dead lifts, too, and by the time she left the gym that afternoon she had dead-lifted 225 pounds.

That evening Jan began asking Terry questions, and for the first time she heard about Katie Sandwina and the other professional strong women of circus and vaudeville. She also learned that studies have been made that indicate women may be much closer to men in potential strength than anyone has ever believed, and that, proportionately, they may be even stronger than men in their lower bodies.

There is nothing Terry Todd does not know about weight lifting. His doctoral dissertation is entitled A History of Progressive Resistance and it came with a 300-page annotated bibliography attached. Now that Jan was curious, Terry was ready with facts, theories and lore. But what really clinched the matter of Jan's immediate future was coming across a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records and finding in it an item that read: "The highest competitive two-handed lift by a woman is 392 lbs. by Mlle. Jane de Vesley ( France) in Paris on October 14, 1926." According to Terry, Jan paused, smiled and said, "I think I can beat that." One year and four months later she did, lifting 394� pounds.

"So far women have had to lift against men," said Jan recently as she bounced through the Nova Scotia countryside in her muddy, shockless, 4-year-old Land-Rover, on her way to the New Germany Rural High School where she has taught 10th-and 11th-grade English for two years. "Mostly you don't win, unless you're lucky and nobody good shows up in your weight class. Until this year I had never trained with women, only with Terry. You heard about your competition through the magazines or in the mail, but you never saw them lift. Also, women were not always welcome at the men's contests. Nothing unpleasant has happened to me, but I have heard stories from other women about having to weigh in nude in front of five male judges, or being told they had to wear a jockstrap because the rules of power lifting require one. Degrading things like that. I don't think I would have put up with it."

Thanks to a man from Pennsylvania named Joe Zarella, who promotes contests of strength, and who ranks high in Jan Todd's hagiology, there is now a national power-lifting competition for women. The first was held last April in Nashua, N.H. New Germany Rural High School was represented by a team of six girls and their 25-year-old English teacher-coach. The six were the active nucleus of a weight-lifting group Jan had launched at the school the previous fall. Sixty boys and girls had signed up, but before long the number was down to 25, mostly girls. "I was much stronger than the boys," says Jan, "and that's hard on a boy's ego at that stage of their lives."

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