Growing up in the 1960s, Jan Todd hardly considered sports an option for herself. Her father dismissed the idea of women in athletics, despite the hunting trips they took when Todd was young. Her high school had only one women’s sports team — swimming. The combination of social norms and familial beliefs kept Todd from fully recognizing her own potential.
“I could run the 100-yard dash faster than any other girl in my school,” Todd says. “I could do a lot of things which, in hindsight, you look back and you obviously had a lot of explosive strength. There was nobody that said, ‘Oh, well you should train for track and field.’ … Women doing sports wasn’t exactly in my frame of reference.”
When she was 18, Todd and her father visited Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. There, they stumbled across an operational hand dynamometer, a machine with a pair of handlebars that could test your grip strength, in a carnival exhibit. Her father gave it a shot, middling somewhere between the poles of “pip-squeak” and “he-man.” At Todd’s turn, her hands pushed the dial above her father’s level. They each attempted the machine once more, and when Todd’s hand strength prevailed, her father grumbled something about it being broken.
Todd was born with strong hands. But it’s her inherent determination and commitment to the details that led her to become a groundbreaking athlete and, eventually, a devoted historian of physical culture.
Once revered as the “World’s Strongest Woman” by Guinness World Records and Sports Illustrated, Todd became a celebrity in the early days of powerlifting, ensuring women’s place in the sport. Today, she is a professor of sport history in The University of Texas’ Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. She also is the co-founder, alongside her late husband, Terry Todd, of the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports.
Todd’s athletic abilities might have gone unrecognized in her youth, but when she met powerlifter and professor Terry Todd while studying at Mercer University in Georgia in the early 1970s, a door was opened. Terry spent much of his free time in the gym, and as a result, so did she.
On a visit to see Terry’s family in Austin in the mid-1970s, Jan met a woman training at the Texas Athletic Club who lifted to 225 pounds in the deadlift. After talking with her for a while, Jan decided to give it a try — and she lifted the same weight on her first attempt with absolutely no weight-training. On the couple’s ride home, Terry told his wife about the history of strongwomen, and she soon became enamored with one question: “How strong could a woman be?”
“What we knew about women and strength at that time could’ve filled up a water glass,” she says. Her work in the years after that first lift would go on to expand knowledge on the subject so it could fill swimming pools.