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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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Katie Sandwina was a professional strong woman who performed in John Ringling's circuses in the early 1900s. She was celebrated for great feats of strength, such as carrying a 600-pound cannon on her back, and lesser ones, like executing the manual of arms with her 160-pound husband Max instead of a rifle. Sandwina was a handsome woman, standing 6'1" and weighing 210 pounds. She had a narrow, corseted waist, in the style of the day, and well-rounded thighs filling out her white circus tights. Some people think Sandwina was the strongest woman who ever lived, but because very few strong women have thought it prudent to advertise their strength, the matter is difficult to judge.

In a genealogy of the spirit, Jan Todd would be in a direct line of descent from Katie Sandwina. The day four years ago when Jan first heard of Sandwina was also the day she began to turn over in her mind the possibility of shedding a feminine physical ideal that was not of her own making. Until that day she had been a naturally strong, athletically talented, intellectually well-equipped schoolgirl who took her strength for granted and worried, off and on, about her height (5'7"), her weight (165) and her posture (round-shouldered).

Now Jan Todd is the strong woman in the world if the strength being considered is muscle strength and if it is measured in units of heavy iron. Last June, in a power-lifting contest in Stephenville Crossing, Newfoundland, after four years of lifting and six months of heavy training specifically aimed at her goal, she raised a total of 1,041.8 pounds—424.4 pounds in the squat, 176.4 in the bench press and 441 in the dead lift—or approximately 100 pounds more than any woman had ever lifted before. The total weight and two of the three lifts are world records. The third, in the bench press, is 34 pounds below the record held by her friend Cindy Reinhoudt of Fredonia, N.Y.

The bench press is a test of upper-body strength, and Todd's great power comes from her hips, her legs and her lower back. When she pins her long blonde hair up in a knot for a workout, buckles a wide leather belt into place over her blue sweat suit and does a deep knee bend with several hundred pounds of iron balanced on her shoulders, the power is plain to see. But at home on a farm in Nova Scotia on a Saturday morning in the fall, milking the cow, Miss Crump, harnessing an 1,800-pound draft horse to a wagon or tossing 40-pound bales of hay around, she is just an attractive young woman with a body admirably adapted to its labor. Dress her up in a dirndl and a peasant blouse, give her half a dozen beer steins to hold and she could pass for a model in a L�wenbr�u ad.

Still, she worries about her weight—not the fact of it anymore, but how it might be misinterpreted. To break through the 1,000-pound barrier last June she deliberately gained more than 25 pounds, going from her normal 170 to 197.5. Now, after five months of farm work and running several times a week, she is down to 185. When she begins full training again this winter, she plans to compete in the 181-pound class, trying to duplicate the lifts she made at the higher body weight. If she does, she may try the same thing the following year in the 165-pound class.

"To be honest," she says, "anything negative I felt about gaining the weight is balanced out with the pleasure I get from being strong. But I wouldn't want to scare anybody away from lifting. It should be clear that I was a big person to begin with. Even when I was a competitive swimmer as an adolescent I weighed 160 or 165. The weight I gained to lift 1,000 pounds was deliberate and I am in control of it."

Power lifting is probably older than arm wrestling. It is certainly more primitive than its celebrated Olympic counterpart with its flamboyant overhead lifts. For a Vasily Alexeyev to strike those heroic poses, arms fully extended above his head supporting impossible weights, requires not only strength, speed and agility, but also years and years of training in technique.

Power lifting, by contrast, is elemental. Technique plays a part, but not nearly so much as brute strength. A power lifter is not required to raise a bar above his head. The greatest Olympic-style lift ever made was super heavyweight Alexeyev's 562-pound clean and jerk at Montreal in 1976. The heaviest weight ever raised in power-lifting competition was super heavyweight Don Reinhoudt's 934-pound squat in Standley, Ohio in April of '76.

The three power lifts are basic exercises that people have been practicing in gyms for as long as they have been building muscle. The inelegantly named squat is a leg builder. The contestant backs under a bar resting in a rack slightly below shoulder height. He lifts the bar off the rack onto his shoulders, takes a step backward, then does a deep knee bend.

Bench presses are for the arms and shoulders. The lifter lies on his back on a narrow bench with his feet on the floor; the rack is placed slightly behind his head. Assistants, called spotters, lift the bar off the rack and place it in the contestant's hands. Then the contestant lowers the bar to his chest and raises it again until his arms are fully extended. The world super heavyweight record for men in the bench press was Reinhoudt's 606� pounds, before Canadian Wayne Bouvier's 610 press last August in Hawaii.

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