Sarah Pileggi, ‘The Pleasure of Being the World’s Strongest Women’, (Sports Illustrated, 1977)

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 606¼ pounds, before Canadian Wayne Bouvier’s 610 press last August in Hawaii.

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 2½ 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 6’2½” 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 √ºnberwitch,” 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 394½ 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.”

The team of six country girls who stuck it out through nearly four months of intensive weight training responded just the way their coach had hoped they would. Their concept of what is possible and appropriate for young girls to do had been expanded. When a New Hampshire television newsman asked them why they, girls, would want to lift weights, they replied simply that they saw no reason why they should not be strong, too.

“The schools are quite free here,” said Jan. “You can take a personal approach to teaching if you want.” Last year she convinced her 10th-graders that a great deal of useful knowledge of crafts and farming was stored in the heads of the old people of Lunenburg County and that rather than let it die with them, it should be collected and made into a book. The New Germany schoolchildren fanned out through the countryside and eventually came back with a book’s worth of country wisdom and arcane knowledge. They decided to call the book Slutterfutz, an almost forgotten local word for a scabbard made of a cow’s horn, which the Lunenburg County farmers fill with water and wear on a string around their waists to carry their whetstones. “I think they also liked the word because it sounded vaguely dirty,” says Jan.

The real focus of the Todds’ lives these days, teaching and weight lifting notwithstanding, is their own piece of Lunenburg County, a 100-acre farm on top of a hill where they raise cattle and mastiffs and grow hay and vegetables. They bought it last spring from Eldridge Milbury, who had worked the farm for 37 years and was ready to retire, but while Milbury is building a new house nearby, he and his wife Katie are staying on to help their American understudies learn the ways of Northern farming. In July the four of them, working together, put up 5,000 bales of hay, 1,000 of them in a single day.

Nobody places a higher value on strength than a farmer does, whether it resides in men or animals. In Lunenburg County they call a strong man “able.” Terry has overheard both himself and Jan referred to as able.

The Todds, in turn, have become great admirers of the farmers of Lunenburg County, especially of the fact that they have resisted mechanization and clung to their beloved teams of oxen and draft horses. Terry and Jan drove a thousand miles from one fair to another last year, talking to farmers about horses, watching the horses pull, learning how to work them and care for them, and asking along the way who might be willing to sell. Finally they settled on a team of great, gentle bays, part Belgian and part Percheron—the stallion weighing 2,000 pounds, the mare 1,850. They named them Don and Cindy after their good friends Don and Cindy Reinhoudt.

Jan’s passion is the garden. “We have no illusions about dropping out and living off the land,” she says. “We know it better than that. We just like the country and we’re lucky enough to have access to it.”

She grows her vegetables organically and cans many of them. The cupboards in the kitchen of the farmhouse are filled with jars of tomatoes, pickles and applesauce that she put up last year, and stored away in the cellar are potatoes, beets, carrots and onions. A beef and a half from their own herd of 25 will get them through the winter, and Miss Crump will provide the milk and cream. Or some of it.

“We are moderately self-sustaining,” says Terry. “No, make that somewhat self-sustaining. That would be more accurate.”

For heat through the long Nova Scotia winter, they have a wood-burning cookstove, which also heats their water, and a small oil furnace. “You have to crawl under the house to light the furnace,” says Jan. “That’s my job. Terry is too big.” She throws a theatrically dubious glance in his direction, Terry, all innocence, says, “I want to light the furnace. I’d love to light the furnace. But we can’t do everything we want to do.”

There were mornings last winter when the temperature inside the Todd bedroom was 18°. But such mornings have led to warming discoveries, such as bed sheets from Newfoundland made of cotton flannel, and small satisfactions, such as an $11 fuel bill for the month of January. “It got a little claustrophobic sometimes last winter,” Jan says. “The area in which we could live was often confined to the stove. But the worst is over by the end of March.

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.

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