Of all Jan Todd's talents—for lifting heavy weights, for teaching English, for firing adolescent creativity—perhaps the most surprising are the domestic ones, the fact that the sticky buns on the breakfast table are her own doing, as are the whole-wheat loaves in the bread box and the patchwork quilt on the bed and some of the clothes in her closet. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, but it is. So is the fact that in high school she won a contest that caused her to be named, to her everlasting embarrassment, the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow.
Her name was Jan Suffolk then, and from the time that her father, a steelworker, left home for good, when she was 12 years old, Jan had been running a household. Her mother, a trained nurse, went back to work to support the family—Jan, her younger sister and an aging grandmother—and from then on Jan cooked the meals, cleaned the house, did the laundry, made most of her own and her sister's clothes and went to school. Throughout high school she also worked afternoons and weekends at a men's clothing store in Plant City, Fla., where she lived, and during her junior and senior years she swam on the Plant City High School girls' team. But only the sprints—she never had enough time to train for longer distances.
She was always strong, for a girl. "I was a tomboy," she says, "but I always knew I wasn't supposed to be." Her first clue that she was unusually strong, not just for a girl but for anybody, came when she was 19 and was in Chicago to visit her estranged father. One day the two of them went to the Museum of Science and Industry where there was an exhibit of machines designed to test one's strength. When they tried the grip machine, Jan's grip registered slightly higher than her father's, to her amazement and his horror. "He was 45, a roller in a steel mill and really quite strong," she says. "He was not tall, but he had big bones, big hands, broad hips. I have his build."
"If Jan had come from a wealthy family and been exposed to tennis," says Terry, "boy, she would have been good. She is naturally strong and quick." Terry was good enough at the game to go to Texas on a full tennis scholarship. "She might also have been a good golfer or softball player or shotputter," he says. "She had natural gifts, but she never had time. Lifting was the first chance she ever had to let her gifts manifest themselves."
Jan was in her kitchen one evening, shucking corn from the garden, making faces because it was full of fat worms, and trying to explain herself. "I lift because I love it," she said. "I love the way it makes me feel. It has extended my idea of the limits of what is possible for me. If someone had told me four years ago that I would squat with 400 pounds on my shoulders. I would not have believed it. Lifting was a whole new world. It is hard to explain, but it became something I wanted to try for. How would you like potatoes instead of corn?
"I've never used steroids because I've never felt pushed." She began to scrub new potatoes. "If I did. I don't know. If I were a shotputter, for instance, and there were the Olympics out there, it might be different. When I wanted to get stronger last spring I just gained weight. I ate a lot of protein and I took vitamins—A, E, C, B12—and a whole lot of desiccated liver, 200 tablets a day at the peak of my training."
Terry, who was outside the screen door, turning halves of young chickens on a charcoal grill but listening, said, "Do you know what a geek is?"
"A person who bites the heads off live chickens?" someone ventured.
Terry said, "Her grandfathers on both sides were sideshow geeks, one of them very famous. Nobody else but the granddaughter of geeks on both sides would eat desiccated liver!"
Jan grinned and put the pot of potatoes on the flat iron surface of the cook-stove. She will never wear spangles and tights and listen to the cheers of thousands as Katie Sandwina once did, and she will never make a dime from having been, for a while, the strongest woman in the world, but it really doesn't matter. There will always be some people who understand what she did, and a few, like Terry, will even understand why.