At the Fitzgerald Field House, a former bodybuilding champion works tirelessly to groom Pitt athletes into top-tier talent. And she does a fine job of it.
Kim King, the head strength and conditioning coach for Olympic sports at Pitt, boasts a professional athletic career — one that transcends gender and garners her athletes’ respect — that most people could only imagine. A top competitor in numerous elite bodybuilding competitions, including a first-place finish in the 1991 National Physique Committee championships and the 1994 Pittsburgh Athlete of the Year, King understands the work required to succeed athletically.
King, who Pitt athletes refer to as the “mother of the operation,” has been the head coach of Pitt lifting for 15 years now.
Although an avid athlete growing up — a gymnast until the age of 16 and a high school state titlist in the long jump — bodybuilding was not always her goal. It was more an opportunity that fell upon her as a teenager, when she opted to power lift with men instead of women at spas — or what are now referred to as weightlifting gyms.
“In those spas back then, they had a men’s part and a women’s part. Men were downstairs, and women were upstairs,” King said. “Downstairs was where all the real weight was though. My buddies said once, ‘Just come down here with us,’ so I went downstairs.”
During that first lift, she was already stronger than most of her friends. Outmuscling them was no small accomplishment. The men were powerlifters.
“So it was very noticeable then that I had something special,” King said. “And I loved it, more than anything, I loved the way I felt when I was lifting. It made me feel like I was larger than life.”
From there, King’s life and weightlifting career took off. Amid her college years at Community College of Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh, in addition to meeting new trainers who were eager to show her the ropes of becoming an elite competitor, King met her husband, Jeff, who was also a passionate weightlifter. They married, and together they had a daughter, Kelly, who has recently decided to pursue a career in medicine because of the appreciation for health and fitness that she has received from her parents.
As her personal life began to settle, King’s professional career thrived. She went on to place fourth in Bodybuilding at the U.S. Games in Germany in 1989,as well as the aforementioned gold at the 1991 Women’s National Physique Committee championship and won Pittsburgh’s Athlete of the Year in 1994.
When Pitt offered her the job, she became the first woman in the country to serve as a head strength and conditioning coach of an Olympic program.
“There just weren’t many females who were comfortable in this field,” King said. “I had a good niche because I looked the part. I was just getting ready to retire [from bodybuilding] when I was offered the job here. You could pick up magazines and see me on the cover. But also, talking to me for five minutes about [lifting], you could just tell I was on fire about it.”
King’s bodybuilding career forced her to follow disciplined, high-protein diets and complete mentally and physically grueling workouts. These experiences enable her to relate to the teams she trains — particularly the wrestling team, as the athletes on the team also experience King’s similar experiences of stringent, calorie-counting eating.
“What I do now is so connected with what I did all those years,” King said. “My coaching style is a little different because it’s coming from someone who competed at a national level and knows what it takes. It just really gives you a way to relate to the athletes. You want [athletes] to trust you, so when they’re squatting 315 pounds and I walk by and say, ‘Put 10 more on each side,’ they know that I know what I’m talking about.”
Well aware of King’s experience, athletes trust what she has to teach and know that when they enter the weight room, their workouts will be no-holds-barred.
Tyler Wilps, volunteer assistant coach and former two-time All-American Pitt wrestling standout, describes King as “intensely driven but very caring.” As an athlete competing under her for four years, Wilps has developed a close bond with King that dates back to his freshman year and continues to grow as he works beside her in the weight room.
Wilps had no qualms about a woman training him. He knew what King had accomplished and was willing to learn from her experience.
“You knew right away she was the real deal,” Wilps said. “People showed me her national championship video freshman year. I never questioned what she was saying because she was a woman. She’s just on that level. She exudes the fact that she does know, and when you’re around elite athletes, it’s important to know what you’re talking about.”
While King definitely helped make Wilps and his team stronger athletes, she also put in work with Wilps individually, making sure he knew his training was going in the right direction.
“You workout 20-plus hours a week. You’re travelling. You’re hungry, and even me personally, I made decisions to do things differently than the rest of my team,” Wilps said. “Kim helped me most by supporting me, showing me and telling me that that was the way it had to be. And I knew she understood because she went through [training]. She pushed me to be the best I could be.”
Unlike Wilps, Ryan Solomon, a junior on Pitt’s wrestling team and the 2014-15 ACC runner-up at 285 lbs., did not know what to expect of King when he first got to campus his freshman year.
“Our first lift, actually, a couple guys decided to take buses to upper campus. The rest of us walked,” Solomon said. “It took longer than they thought, and they were late. Kim had them do prowler pushes the length of the weight room for probably 15 minutes as a punishment. That was the first lift of freshman year. So I knew what to expect after that. She doesn’t play games.”
Solomon and his team have logged countless hours in the weight room, a daily challenge made easier by King’s solidarity.
“She’s been through it,” Solomon said. “When she was bodybuilding, she’s gone hungry. There were some days she didn’t want to come into the weight room. That resonates with us, because we are usually hungry. She’s been through all of that, and she’s done what we do now. It helps us get through everything.”
King posits that a strong and stable mentality is what it takes to win, and she prides herself on the notion that “your body can do anything your mind tells it to.” Her athletes heed this creed — they value King’s presence.
“She’s the first one there and the last one to leave, and I think that’s why we like her,” Solomon said. “Being with her for three years, you definitely know that she knows what she’s talking about, and when you walk in that weight room, you better give it your all, or Kim’s going to be on you the whole time. She expects the most out of us. She’s done a whole lot for all of us, and we appreciate everything.”