The same year that she decided to do it full time, King won the national championship in her weight class and made the World Championships team. She later won the American Open after an infamous nail-biter with a far more experienced lifter. She then went on to break a women’s record at the 2015 Pan Am Games. By 2016, she was on her way to Rio to represent the United States at the Olympics, and she’s currently a frontrunner to compete in Tokyo in 2020.
“I was always the little kid, always trying to prove something, and I found it.”
King is one of the most important American lifters ever, having shattered stereotypes and helped introduce the sport to what is now its fastest-growing demographic: women.
“When I was in fourth grade, I remember wanting to break Michael Johnson’s 200m record,” she says. “Clearly, I don’t see gender.”
While just about any person with a gym membership in the last 50 years has probably done some weight training, few would be able to tell you what a clean and jerk was, and even fewer could name a gold-medal-winning lifter. After almost 100 years as a somewhat obscure Olympic event (it became a regular event in 1920), weightlifting is finally blowing up in the USA.
USA Weightlifting reports that between 2012 and 2016 overall membership rose roughly 125 percent. Female membership in particular is surging however, which could be partly down to the debut of women’s lifting at the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, where American Tara Nott picked up the event’s first-ever gold medal. While the number of women signing up also rose about 125 percent, women now compose 35 percent of USA Weightlifting’s current membership, up from just 19 percent in 2007.
A lifelong athlete who went from collegiate soccer to half marathons and triathlons, King spent her early 20s on that familiar journey of searching for the perfect athletic outlet.
“I was fit, I felt good, but I was missing something,” she says. “I wanted a real sport. I wanted to get stronger. I started exclusively Olympic lifting and there was something about it that just felt like everything was within my control. It was all on me. I was always the little kid, always trying to prove something, and I found it.”
A few people within Olympic lifting are saying that the rising female participation numbers may have something to do with how well suited women are to the sport. Some of the gains are so remarkable that sports scientists are scrambling to understand what physiological dynamics may be at work. While many admit that research surrounding women and strength is embarrassingly thin, recent records tell a compelling story.
The first-ever men’s Weightlifting World Championship was held in 1891, but it wasn’t until 1951 that a man was able to clean and jerk 180kg. It took 10 more years for a man to snatch double their body weight. The first-ever women’s competition took place in 1987, and women were able to reach those same two milestones in less than half the time.
“These are barriers, like the four-minute mile,” says Jim Schmitz, a three-time Olympic team trainer who has coached 10 men to the Olympics and three women to eight separate world championships. “When men were breaking these records, they’d been lifting for nearly 100 years.”
“A lot of the young girls getting into it first saw me on social media”
King doesn’t need any stats to convince her she’s on the right path however. The impact she’s having on women everywhere is enough. “One of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me was when my friend [2012 Olympian] Holley Mangold told me, ‘You do realise how influential you’ve been for these younger lifters – they’re now seeing women of all sizes being able to do this’,” she says. “A lot of the young girls getting into it first saw me on social media.”
“I still practice yoga and I hike, but Olympic lifting has become my obsession.”
Former Olympic lifter Jasha Faye, owes much of his new-found success to the rise of women in the sport. Faye owns Marin Heavy Athletics near San Francisco, in California. It’s specialises in Olympic-style lifting and Faye says that half of the people who walk through his doors are women, and of the athletes he coaches at a competitive level, more women than men are qualifying for national meets. Further proof came in April of 2017, when Faye’s gym hosted a local competition that consisted of 22 women and eight men.
Back when he began lifting at age 13, there were only a handful of women lifting in the Bay Area of San Franciso, where his gym is located. Faye notes that Jim Schmitz was one of the first to coach women in the ’70s. Schmitz, now 72, says that a few women joined his gym in the ’70s, right about the time jobs that required more physical strength were opening up to women – firefighting, construction, the police force. Some of them even decided they wanted to compete, but there wasn’t yet a separate division for them so they went ahead and competed against men. “My first couple of meets, I actually lost to women,” says Faye.
In 1987, the International Weightlifting Federation sanctioned the first Women’s World Championship. Ten years later, the ‘lady bar’ was introduced. It was smaller in diameter, weighed 5kg less and was supposedly better suited to smaller hands.
After many years as a trainer and coach at various gyms, Faye finally opened his gym in May of last year. “The women are the ones who show up every day,” he says of his athletes. “They’re tougher, they listen to what you tell them, they’re not stubborn, and they’re not ego driven.”
“I think women search for perfection more,” says King. “Women are so technical. We ask why, we have follow-up questions. We’re more coachable. I actually fell in love with this sport because it’s so rarely perfect, but there have been a handful of times that have been pure magic.”
This is all incredibly important in a sport where technique trumps strength. “The gains women are making is what happens when you stop looking at weightlifting as a strength sport and look at it like any other movement-based Olympic sport,” says Faye. “The implement in your hands happens to be a barbell, but the movement is finite, and you can hammer out that technique over time.”
While she’d always chosen her workouts, this time the workout chose her. “I still practice yoga and I hike,” she says. “But Olympic lifting has become my obsession.”
The success women are having in Olympic lifting has taken one group of people by surprise more than any other: sports scientists. There’s an oddly empty database of stats relating to women and strength, and even less research related to female Olympic lifters. Many trainers end up effectively making it up as they go along when it comes to coaching their female athletes. “There’s almost no science on Olympic lifting in general, besides what Russia did in the ’80s,” says Andy Galpin, a professor at California State University Fullerton and the co-director of its Center for Sport Performance. “And if you want to look at females specifically, the number is zero – nothing exists.”
Despite living in that cocoon of training, recovery shakes and rest that all Olympians do in the run-up to qualification, King is still aware of what’s happening in amateur lifting all over the world. She says that during a recent trip to Romania, at one point the training hall was filled mostly with women. “Five years ago, it would have been 70 percent men,” she says.
“I feel like when we interview women in sports, a lot of them say ‘I was a tomboy growing up’. But that’s a weird in-between – you’re still feminine, but you don’t really fit into a box”
The gym she used to train at now has 10 Olympic lifting platforms, and people recognise her on the street. “I recently went to one of these pro-club-style gyms, where they have a pool, tennis courts, sauna, everything,” she says. “While I was lifting, a girl came up to me and asked if I was Morghan King. She had just taken a USAW certification course – and she was shorter than me!”
King seems to be as driven by the excitement surrounding the rise of women in lifting as she is by winning medals. “I feel like when we interview women in sports, a lot of them say ‘I was a tomboy growing up’,” says King. “But that’s a weird in-between – you’re still feminine, but you don’t really fit into a box.
“Instead of people telling us what we can do, we now just have more options of what we can do. There are little girls out there crushing the boys and it’s just a normal thing – that’s exciting.”
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