Successful weightlifters come in all sizes. One of the biggest stars at the 1988 Olympics was 4-foot-10 Turkish lifter Naim Suleymanoglu, who could hoist triple his body weight and went on to win three consecutive gold medals. And at the 2000 Games, when women's weightlifting became an official Olympic sport, the US produced two medals, one at each end of the female weight spectrum: flyweight gold (Tara Nott) and super-heavyweight bronze (Cheryl Haworth).
No American weightlifter has won an Olympic medal since. In Rio, Morghan King hopes to break the drought. King competes in the lightest women's category, 48 kg (or 105.6 pounds). Remarkably, the 5-foot-tall Seattle native discovered the sport only four years ago, after college, when an acquaintance persuaded her to try CrossFit. King not only excelled, but she discovered another talent during the preliminary strength tests.
"That first week, I back-squatted 90 kilos, for a single," she says, which means the weight was resting on her shoulder blades as she crouched down into a squat. "I was like, 'That was fun.' And people were like, 'Holy crap!'"
That was 2011. By 2012, King was lifting full-time. She won the first national competition she entered and made the 2013 world championships team (placing 11th in Poland). The next year, she placed 10th at the world championships in Kazakhstan with a personal best in the clean and jerk, lifting 96 kg, or twice her body weight. USA Weightlifting spokeswoman (and 2008 Olympian) Carissa Gump estimates that fewer than 10 women in the US have ever lifted double their body weight in competition.
Then, at the 2015 Pan American Games in July, King placed fourth overall and set a personal record in the snatch (79 kg).
"People always ask me, 'How did you get so good?'" says King, who turns 30 in October. "I'm lucky enough to have the genetics and the sport background." (Her older brother is a bodybuilder part-time.)
Gump adds, "She has incredible awareness of her body in space, and she listens and understands coaching cues and technique. I think she's just a phenomenal athlete, truly talented and gifted."
But not all of King's training involves lifting weights. She shared five training tips that don't involve a single barbell.
1. High-elevation living
Despite King's background in hurdling, triathlons, half marathons and soccer (her high school team won the Washington state championship in 2002-03 and she played midfield at Notre Dame de Namur, a Division II college in Northern California), she now says she does "no cardio" for weightlifting.
Instead, she reaps the benefits of working out at high altitude at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado (elevation 6,350 feet). "Our coach puts in so much volume that when I competed in the Dominican Republic for the 2014 Pan American championships, I felt like a million dollars -- and I had only been at the OTC for three weeks. It was crazy going down to sea level. I was like, 'I'm ready to go! This is great!' They were like, 'Sit down, relax.'"
2. Online yoga challenges
After weightlifting, King plans to become a yoga teacher who specializes in yoga for athletes. She already has an Instagram account called Lifters Yoga where she posts photos of herself posing in fun locations.
In addition, she finds poses on the web that will improve her flexibility. "Some yoga teachers do monthly challenges," she says. "One was: Learn how to handstand. So for the whole month it was like: OK, we're doing something on a wall or we're learning how to kick up. It's cool because you learn things you never thought you could do, and do it through 30 days."
One instructor that King especially likes is Sandra Arechaederra. "She's actually a weightlifter and a mom. She does a pose for me every day that's geared toward weightlifting. It basically forces me to stretch. A lot of times we don't cool down in weightlifting because our sessions are 2 1/2 hours and we do nine training sessions a week. So having her, it's almost like having a nagging mom. 'Hey! You should do this! And this!' I just do it -- and post a picture on Instagram at #DoYourYoga."
3. Reading for mental strength
"Usually before bed, I read some sort of mental training book. I'll read a chapter a night and think about it when I'm going to sleep," King says. "Right now I'm reading 'Mind Gym' again [by Gary Mack and David Casstevens]. One of my favorites is 'The Art of Mental Training' by DC Gonzalez. He makes it simple, because I think a lot of sports psychologists kind of speak at you and don't really engage you. So I liked that one."
One aspect that King was focusing on during a quick stop in New York City to mark the one-year countdown to the Rio Olympics was "to learn to control what you can, and let go of what you can't," explaining that when she competes, her coaches make all the strategic decisions for her (like how many kilograms her opening lift will be and, as the weights get progressively heavier, which increments to try and which to skip). They also factor in what other athletes are doing (three misses at a given weight results in elimination), as well as everyone's personal bests. All that strategy banter can be distracting.
"I have to focus on my lifting," King says, "so if I miss and have two minutes before I go back out on the platform to make the same lift, I need to learn to let that go and just lift what's on the bar because it's not something I haven't done before. Rather than, 'I should be making this lift, but why am I not?'"
4. Simple ingredients
"For me, in a lighter weight class, nutrition is kind of a big deal," King says, especially since she weighs about 111 pounds while training but competes at 105.6 pounds. "Four weeks before a competition, I tend to eat very clean -- a lot of fruits, vegetables, meat. Anything that has one or two ingredients generally drops me down to 109 pounds. At the end, [to cut water weight] you end up not drinking as much and dehydrating yourself a bit."
The official weigh-in is two hours before a competition and if the athletes are too heavy, King says they have an hour to make the cut.
5. Recovery tubs
For recovery, King says she does a contrasting hot/cold regimen three times a week to increase blood flow and circulation. It entails jumping between a 103-degree hot tub and a 50-degree cold tub. There's no ice in the cold tub, she says, but there are jets that circulate the water. "We do one minute per tub, for at least 12 minutes. I do it after a heavy two-a-day [workout], usually."
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