HAPPY LANDINGS : Even If No One Else Did, King Knew She Could Jump

Times Staff Writer

You might say Trish King is hard-headed. Stubborn.

Others have thought that she was soft in the head, foolish for pursuing her seemingly unattainable goal. Unfinished business, she calls it.

The thing about Trish King is that all her life, people have told her what she can't do. They have filled her in as to what they think she is not capable of achieving.

That negative information has bounced around in her hard head and exploded at various times. It came out as rebellion in college. It manifested itself in the weight she seemed to endlessly gain. It lingered as self-doubt that she carried with her.

She has fooled them all. Last month, King outsmarted the doubters when she jumped 6 feet 5 inches and placed second in the high jump at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis.

Fatso, lead-legged, hard-headed Trish King is on the Olympic team!

Trish King? Who once had quit track; who had become a part-time distance runner and full-time eater; who had divided time between the heptathlon and the high jump, who when she wasn't being ignored by coaches was told she couldn't jump? What were the odds on that?

King, 25, was stretching in the cool evening air at the UC Irvine track. She was talking fast and telling her life story and laughing at its irony.

"I had an eighth-grade teacher who told me, 'Whatever you do, don't try the high jump. You can't jump off the ground.' I went out for the track team, anyway."

Even in elementary school, King was accustomed to athletic rejection. She says she was the first girl to play on a Little League team in California but she really wasn't welcome, and only the threat of a lawsuit allowed her to play.

"A lot of the boys resented me," she said. "They called me a tomboy. But I liked the competition. I was good, too."

King went to high school in Menlo Park, went to college at the University of Oregon and now lives in Yorba Linda. Despite little encouragement in any of these places she has barreled ahead in sports. In high school, she was on the diving team, she was the goalie on the soccer team and she high jumped.

King also spent four years at a special school to learn to cope with dyslexia, a reading disorder.

In high school, her success in jumping came fast.

"I think I started at about 4-10 and went up to 5-4 in one month of intense training," King said.

She was a solid jumper, consistent, with speed. But there were no scholarship offers. King visited the University of Oregon and when the coaches dragged high jump pits onto the track and asked her to jump, she jumped and jumped, without a miss.

That might have been the last time in her college career, though, that King jumped with ease.

King had what may be described as a typical freshman year. She was away from home and she was going to see what she could get away with.

"I have always loved to jump," she said. "But all of a sudden you aren't successful . . . Normally I don't like to do things halfway. But that's what was happening at Oregon. I wasn't good at it anymore.

"I was out of shape. There is nothing worse than high jumping when you are out of shape. All you do is knock the bar down, knock the bar down . . . "

After that freshman year she went home for the summer and announced she was quitting the track team. To her parents, who were keen on their daughter going to business school, this was welcome news.

Her sophomore year was a disaster. She had quit the Oregon team and didn't know quite what to do with herself.

"What did I do all day? Well, I slept all afternoon. I didn't study, I got the worst grades of my life," she said.

"I decided I wanted to start running, but I was eating so much you couldn't believe it. Ice cream, pizzas--do you know how many miles you have to run to work that off? I didn't. It was a year of depression."

That summer she told her parents that she was going back to track. They told her it was time to put the toys away.

She had been unsuccessful in college competition. Her coaches were dubious that she would ever excel. Her family wanted her to quit for good.

So why did King go back? What did she know that everyone else didn't?

"It was unfinished business for me," she said. "I knew that I had a gift. It was hard to go against my family. No one thought I could do it. I really had this sense that I could do it, even though no one else did."

So King went back to Eugene and asked the coaches if she could come back. They let her. But it was a repeat of freshman year and, once again, King found herself at a crossroads. By then she knew that she wanted to try the heptathlon, but she found little encouragement.

Finally, she left the team for good and began to train in Eugene with a Polish coach who pushed King as she had never been pushed before.

She showed slow but steady improvement in both the heptathlon and the high jump but she could not seem to ever qualify for the national championships meet. She graduated from college and got an ultimatum from her father: Quit track and get a job or you are cut off. King kept going and weathered hard financial times.

"It just goes to show you, father doesn't always know best," said Trish's father, Chuck King, a Bay Area real estate developer.

By 1985, King was working full time--seeking corporate sponsors for athletic events--and training alone. She had no shoe company contract or endorsements. She was scrounging for implements and was delighted to find a bargain--a used shot for $10. She was also training at Oregon's Hayward Field, where she said she felt the condescending stares of her former coaches.

"It was kind of, 'What are you still doing training?' " she said.

"It was just something inside me that said to keep going, that I hadn't reached my potential. We're a microwave society. We want everything now. I knew I had to work hard and I had to put my hours in. I was patient."

In May of 1986, King arrived in the L.A. area, bent on meet-hopping to qualify for nationals in the heptathlon. She slept on a friend's couch for two months. In her first heptathlon here, she pulled her hamstring. Still, she competed in five heptathlons in eight weeks. In the last one, she made the qualifying standard, exactly.

The next year she cleared 6 feet in the high jump for the first time. She was living and working in Yorba Linda and training little more than part time. This year she allotted more time to training. She qualified for the Olympic trials in both the heptathlon and the high jump. She had pointed all her training to that one meet.

But there were more snags. Four days before she was to leave for Indianapolis, she was informed that her high jump mark had not been accepted. That was straightened out the day before she left, but when she arrived she discovered that meet officials had booked her hotel room for only 3 days instead of 12.

The heptathlon started well. King was in fifth place after the first day. She faded on the second, though, and finished eighth with 5,611 points.

King's plan for the open high jump was simple: Conserve energy. After two days in intense heat for the heptathlon, she was concentrating on taking as few jumps as possible.

That worked well in qualifying. She made every attempt.

King said, however, that she noticed two things that day:

--Somehow her name had been left off the list of qualifiers, and her family and friends at home didn't know she had made the finals.

--Her name also was not on any of the quasi-official dope sheets evaluating the fields.

Overlooked again.

In the final, King said she was both nervous and confident.

"I knew what I had to do," she said. "I had to jump 6-4 and I had to jump everything clean. I was never so nervous in my life. I kept getting drinks of water and I saw my hands shaking."

Still, her plan was working. King was clearing every height on her first attempt. Finally, the field narrowed to six jumpers. After clearing 6-4, King rose from the landing pit and screamed. She ran into the stands and hugged friends. She cried.

"I broke down," she said. "I really lost it. I forgot that I had to go back and jump more."

The Olympic team was determined but not the winner of the event. She went back onto the field and jumped 6-5 but could do no more.

At that, her second-place finish was a shock to the track world. No one would have picked her to make the team. She has a heptathlete's build, but not the rail-thin body of a jumper. At 5 feet 7 inches, King is far shorter than most high jumpers.

Colleen Sommer, who was third, approached King after the event and asked, "Who are you?"

Louise Ritter, who won, told King she had made a lot of high jumpers angry by coming out of nowhere to make the team.

King loved it. She has always loved it. And, somehow, she has always known it would happen.

"Did I underestimate her? Yes," Chuck King said. "If there's one thing she can get out of all of this, I hope it's that when people tell you reasons why you can't do a thing, you don't have to subscribe to it. I think she knows that."

King was stretching and laughing, pulling up grass and telling it all again. If there is one thing she knows, it is what she can do. At last.

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