Trailblazing American weightlifter and Tokyo 2020 medal hopeful Morghan King talks to Sam Price about being a woman in a sport that has historically been dominated by men, and how she wants to promote body positivity to the next generation of female athletes.
It’s never too late to find the right sport: just ask Morghan King. A successful college football scholar with a background in gymnastics and athletics, King completed marathons and triathlons after graduating with a qualification in graphic design, but it wasn’t until she lifted weights for the first time, at the age of 26, that she found her true calling.
In 2013, the same year she decided to pursue the sport professionally, she won the US national championships in her category and qualified for the IWF World Championships in Wroclaw (Poland). Less than three years later she was on her way to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where she made history, snatching 83kg to break a 16-year American record set by pioneering Olympic gold medallist Tara Knott.
King’s record-breaking snatch would have been enough for gold in the 48kg competition at Sydney 2000 – the first-ever women’s weightlifting event in the history of the Games – but the woman’s side of the sport has developed so rapidly in the intervening period that it meant she only finished sixth in Rio. Still, it completed a remarkable four-year progression from complete beginner to someone who could lift more than twice her weight class set to favour King, a coveted place on the podium looks within reach should she arrive at Tokyo 2020 fit and healthy.
The 33-year-old is working hard to achieve this goal alongside her coach and fiancé Dean Kruse but says she doesn’t need an Olympic medal to define her, and is already using her status to break down gender-based stereotypes about weightlifting and inspire the next generation of female athletes to practise the sport.
She explains: “After Rio 2016, my friend [US lifter Holley Mangold], who is also an Olympian, said to me: ‘I hope you realise, because of social media and the reach we now have in weightlifting, how many young girls you’ve inspired’. Before that it hadn’t really occurred to me, but after hearing that I wanted to share the excitement [of the Games].”
This sense of duty took King to the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Buenos Aires 2018 as an Athlete Role Model, where she enjoyed passing on her experience to future stars of her sport – particularly those competing in the women’s events.
“In Buenos Aires, my volunteer – who translated everything for me! – asked a Peruvian athlete [Gianella Valdiviezo] how she got into weightlifting”, King recalls.
“She said that she had found me on Instagram, and was so inspired by what I was doing that she wanted to start working hard to get to [the YOG].
“I think that’s so powerful because as athletes we get so focused on ourselves that we forget how inspiring we are to other people.”
King has more than 70,000 followers on Instagram where, like many professional sportspeople, she interacts with fans and provides an insight into her life as an elite athlete. Competing in such an individual sport can be lonely – particularly weightlifting, where the movements are respective and the improvements incremental – but King believes that social media can help to negate that sense of isolation and if used honestly rather than idealistically, can be a tool for good.
“We’re in this alone, but [social media] takes away from that feeling of ‘I’m all by myself’ “, explains King, who acknowledges that Tokyo 2020 will be her final Games due to the rigorous of the sport and the impact it can have on personal relationships. ” I’ve always wanted to be able to inspire young girls and their mothers, so that was important for me when I started getting into the public eye. I do want to be that role model and I want people from all ages to look up to me. If you’re projecting somebody else on social media then you’re going to start fighting that, so be yourself, enjoy your journey and share it with people+.
In particular, King is determined to promote female body positivity to counter prejudices about a sport that was long seen as a pursuit only suitable for men. Attitudes are now changing, helped by increased funding and sponsorship for female lifters, the rise in popularity of CrossFit (the form of high-intensity training that introduced King to the sport) and feminist campaigns like the viral #LiftLikeAGirl hashtag, with King excited to be part of this growing movement.
” I think it’really powerful and inspiring to promote positive body images to women”, says the Seattle native, who herself stands at just 1.53m tall.
“Strenght sports have kind of got a bad reputation, like ‘We’re bodybuilders, and we’re going to get really big’. But it’s not like that at all, and I think with their reach that we’re starting to get we’re going to be able to inspire more young girls. We’ve got so many women that are already involved that I’m hoping [the sport] will just continue to grow and grow, and becomes more normalised rather than something to be scared of.”
For King, there is something empowering about lifting weights, and she wants more young women to feel the same sensation that she does when competing.
“I love the perfection of [weightlifting], love that it’s always me against the bar,” she adds. “For me, there’s something about touching that iron. When you touch it there’s incredible power that you feel; not only the only you’re projecting on the outside, but on the inside, you feel as if you can do anything. I think that is just an incredible feeling, and I hope that women will start to see that.”
It’s not just the next wave of professional weightlifters that King wants to inspire, either. When done in sensible measures with the right technique, weightlifting is proven to have myriad benefits that can help athletes from a range of disciplines, with US Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin just one example of a superstar female athlete from a different sport using it in her training regimen.
“You can use weightlifting with any sport; it doesn’t just have to be the sport of weightlifting”, explains King, who wants to study sports psychology and become a coach after she retires. “I think it’s really important to make sure women know not to be scared of the bar, or scared of the weights. It’s going to make you stronger and more powerful. I would really like to spread weightlifting through other sports because it can benefit you in everything,” she continues. “I think that’s what I was missing when I played college football because we didn’t do strength work. Looking back, I can only imagine the athlete I would have been if I had that background.”
Never mind the footballer shoe could have been; King is a phenomenal athlete in her own right, and a shining example of what can be achieved in a short space of time with talent, strong work ethic and a good support network.
But even more impressive than her rise through the weightlifting ranks to become, pound-for-pound, one of the strongest women in the world is how wholeheartedly she is embracing her mission to shatter gender stereotypes and inspire young women. With King among a growing number of strong, powerful female athlete role models across the Olympic Movement, the future of the sport has never been brighter – and never more female.
Source: Olympic Review, Sam Price