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How Seattle’s Morghan King qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic weightlifting team

Backstage in the athlete warmup area at the 2016 U.S. weightlifting Olympic trials in Salt Lake City on May 8, minutes before she was to attempt three of the most important lifts of her life, weightlifter Morghan King ran into big problems.

Right as she was about to make a warmup clean and jerk of 60 kg, her legs cramped up so much she could hardly move. So King took a smaller-than-normal set of about five warmup lifts before going out onto the competition platform.

King, who competes in the 48 kg (105.6 pounds) weight class, nailed her opening lift of 95 kg.

Knowing that might not be enough to clinch a bid to the Olympics, the Redmond native then attempted a 100 kg clean-and-jerk, but was flagged for a no-lift because she was deemed to have pressed out the jerk instead of locking it overhead in a fluid motion.

King recomposed herself, then came back and made her final attempt. As she pumped her fists in the air triumphantly and ran offstage, she knew she’d done everything she could to lock up a spot on the Olympic team.

That night, King punched her ticket to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, becoming one of three women who will represent the U.S. in weightlifting next month.

But the horrible cramping she experienced, Kruse now believes, was the result of a tactical error they’d made in the lead-up to that night’s weightlifting meet.

Instead of sweating off excess weight in a sauna before the meet, as one of her other coaches had suggested, King had tried to make weight by fasting all day until the official weigh-in two hours before competition time.

“That was a rookie mistake,” Kruse said later that month in a phone interview with The Seattle Times, adding: “That was just too long without water, and coupled with the stress — this was a do-or-die situation — she was physically spent by the time she was warming up.”

It was the sort of rookie mistake that a more seasoned weightlifter-coach tandem might not have made. But in many ways, King and Kruse, both 30, are still relative newcomers in the world of international weightlifting.

In a sport that demands near perfection and razor-sharp attention to detail from its athletes, King’s rapid ascension to the top echelon of the national weightlifting rankings has been remarkable.

“Her first national competition was in 2012, right after the last Olympics, and now she’s going to the Olympics. That’s pretty cool,” says Kruse, who is from Bellevue.

But Kruse himself only got into weightlifting in 2011, and has not coached anyone else at the international level. So as King continues to hone her technique as a world-class weightlifter, her coach is also still learning. Together, they’re embarking on their first Olympic journey. And the road to Rio has been quite the adventure.

Makings of an Olympic weightlifter

When the 2012 Summer Olympics took place in London, King was a former college athlete who was waitressing at a restaurant in South Lake Union and working out at The Lab, a local CrossFit gym that Kruse co-owns.

As part of CrossFit training, which consists of a wide variety of athletic movements performed at high intensity, Kruse taught King the basics of the two Olympic lifts, the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. He was quickly impressed by how strong King got in a short amount of time.

“She’s a fantastic athlete. She was a college soccer player, and she was doing triathlons at the time. We did a lot of strength stuff for CrossFit, and she puts on muscle so fast, it’s crazy,” Kruse said of King, who played soccer at Eastlake High School and Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif.

“Her legs became so strong within a matter of months. Not many people respond to training like that.”

King performed well enough in the annual CrossFit Open competition that she qualified for CrossFit regionals in 2011 and 2012.

But by the end of 2012, King had decided to focus solely on weightlifting, in part because she realized that her diminutive size — she’s listed at 5 feet — was a limiting factor in CrossFit, where there are no weight class divisions.

At her first national meet, the 2012 American Open in Palm Springs, Calif., King competed in the 53-kg weight class and finished fourth, lifting a total of 139 kg.

“It was the most terrifying experience of my life, and I had so much fun,” King said.

That result showed King and Kruse that they were on the right track. King was brimming with untapped potential that they hoped to unlock.

It was time to go all in.

The couple tried out for spots on the North Carolina-based Muscle Driver competitive weightlifting team and moved to Charlotte to begin training full-time. While in North Carolina, King dropped down to the 48-kg weight class to be more competitive for her size.

The switch in weight classes paid almost immediate dividends when she qualified for her first international competition — the 2013 IWF World Championships.

King finished 11th in her weight class, and caught the eye of Zygmunt Smalcerz, the resident weightlifting team coach at the U.S. Olympic training center. Smalcerz subsequently invited King to move to Colorado Springs and train under him.

The prospect of being coached by a well-respected figure in the weightlifting world who had won a gold medal in weightlifting at the 1972 Olympics and was formerly the head coach of the Polish national weightlifting team was an offer King couldn’t refuse.

So in May 2014, King and Kruse packed up and drove to Colorado.

Taking the next step up

Smalcerz helped King quickly add 10 kg to her total, and for more than a year, things were working really well. King finished fourth in her weight class in the 2014 and 2015 Pan-American Games, and placed fifth at the 2015 IWF Grand Prix, with a 179 kg total.

But by the time King competed in the 2015 world championships in Houston last November, the dynamic between her and Smalcerz had shifted.

Smalcerz was stretched thin working with 17 athletes at a time, and King didn’t feel as though she was getting as much attention from her primary coach as she needed to thrive.

To compound matters, she’d struggled with a hip injury leading up to the world championships that had prevented her from doing any squatting in training.

So when she tallied a 170 kg total — 75 kg snatch, 95 kg clean and jerk — and placed 23rd, the lowest she’s ever finished at an international meet, King decided that it was time to shake things up.

“I needed to do something. Something had to change,” King said. “I wasn’t really loving weightlifting any more.”

Kruse became King’s primary coach again, and they reached out to Arizona-based Shahin Nasirinia, a former world weightlifting champion and Iranian national-team coach, to write King’s training program.

For the last six months, King has followed Nasirinia’s programming under the supervision of Kruse, who coaches her in the gym every day. King says it’s the best coaching combination that she could have hoped for.

King is hoping for a third-place finish in Rio. To secure that bronze medal, she and Kruse think she’ll likely have to compile a total between 185 and 195kg.

That’s not an unrealistic goal.

Even while struggling with leg cramps, the 180 kg total King managed at the Olympic trials was a new competition personal record.

King credits her two coaches for the strides she’s made this year.

“Ever since December, Dean’s been my coach every single day in the gym, every session,” King said. “To me, a coach is someone who has been with you from the beginning and has your best interests at heart.”

Kruse has seen just about every one of King’s lifts for the past six years, and he provides context and a sort of institutional memory that no other coach could hope to rival.

Nasirinia’s high-level expertise, however, has been just as instrumental.

Nasirinia’s programming incorporates a lot of bodybuilding and accessory work such as dips, pull-ups and overhead shoulder presses. But he also took King back to basics, emphasizing that she had to start over and re-learn some of the movements involved in the snatch and the clean.

Having Nasirinia as a resource has also been valuable for Kruse, who’s still developing his skills as a weightlifting coach.

“She’s been with me from the beginning, but I’m not a world-champion coach,” Kruse said. “Everything is new. I’ve read a lot of stuff and I am coaching. (However) I’m not really applying everything to a full club of lifters yet. But I’d love to someday. I feel like I’ve learned a lot.”

Regardless of which athlete he ends up coaching next, having to coach his girlfriend who just happens to also be an Olympic medal hopeful might forever stand out as Kruse’s biggest, most stressful challenge.

“We’ve had some pretty big blowouts,” King said, laughing.

“But we always get through it. We don’t ever leave anything unsaid, which is hard for people in the gym because we’re bickering. But when it’s over, it’s over.”

King and Kruse joke that if their relationship can survive this trip to the Olympics, they’ll be able to get through anything together.

“It’s still a learning process,” King said, laughing. “We work it out. It’s a good thing we have dogs. … I don’t think I could have done (this) without him, that’s for sure. It probably would have been a very lonely process.”