Olympics

Skeet gold cements Rhode legend

Rhode on her record
Rhode on her record
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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LONDON

Some Olympic legends are born overnight. Like Kerri Strug, who vaulted America’s 1996 Magnificent Seven to the gymnastics team gold medal on an ankle with torn ligaments. Or Bob Beamon, the American long jumper who soared 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches in Mexico City in 1968. Or Usain Bolt, who blazed to Olympic glory in 9.69 world-breaking seconds in Beijing in 2008.

The legend of American shooter Kim Rhode was not born overnight. On Sunday at the Royal Artillery Barracks, where alternating rain and sun wrought havoc with the Olympians in the women’s skeet-shooting event, Rhode, 33, set an Olympic record by hitting 99 of the 100 targets that were fluttering in the wind and rain.

That tied the world record as well. She simply blew the rest of the field out of the water, beating the Chinese silver medalist by eight shots.

But the moment Rhode realized she’d clinched gold — when she stood on the sixth of the eight shooting stations and told herself to breathe slowly so she wouldn’t burst into tears and ruin her shooting vision — was not the moment her legend was born.

This Olympic legend was born in 1996 in Atlanta, when the 17-year-old Rhode won her first gold medal. The legend grew with a bronze in Sydney in 2000, another gold in Athens in 2004, then a silver in Beijing in 2008.

On Sunday, she didn’t just get another medal to add to her collection. She became the first American — and fifth person in the world — to win an individual medal in five consecutive Olympics.

“Just the achievement alone, it really hits you — wow, this is real, you did it,” Rhode said after the medal was draped over her neck.

“It’s overwhelming. Every emotion [is] hitting me all at once right now. When I was on Station 6, it was all I could do to keep from crying. The record, the history, it’s all amazing.”

Kim Rhode

MAKING HISTORY

American shooter Kim Rhode became the first USA competitor in an individual sport to win medals in five straight Olympics. Find out more about her.

Despite the millions of Americans who hunt and who own guns, the shooting sports barely register a blip in our country’s sporting radar. Skeet shooting is a static sport, with an orange clay pigeon rocketing across the air, a shotgun blast echoing in the stadium, and the bird disappearing in a puff of red smoke. It’s not made for TV, and if it’s not made for TV in America, it doesn’t sell.

Which is why Rhode’s achievement could easily pass you by like a whizzing clay pigeon. But it should not. She is the Michael Jordan of her sport, the best ever.

She is in the American Olympic record books already at age 33, and she plans to shoot for 2016 in Rio de Janiero as well. If her Olympic-medal streak keeps going, it could become Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game or John Wooden’s 10 NCAA titles or Michael Phelps’ eight golds in one Olympics: an untouchable American sporting record.

And Rhode, cognizant of the fact that the oldest Olympic medalist in history is a shooter — the 72-year-old Swede Oscar Swahn, a silver medalist in 1920 — knows that she could be in plenty more Olympics after Rio, too.

“It’s just unbelievable, watching her shoot,” said Todd Graves, an American Olympic shotgun coach and himself an Olympic medalist.

“It’s an honor to be here with her, to be able to sit there during the final and watch her do what she did. She was on autopilot. It’s a big deal. She just did something that nobody’s ever did.”

She’s not going to become a household name, given the invisibility of her sport (though she does co-host a show on the Outdoor Channel). It’s too bad, because her personal story is poignant.

Rhode never aimed to be an Olympian; she just fell in love with shooting. She started shooting at age 3, and her father, Richard Rhode, keeps a tattered picture in his wallet of the little girl with a shotgun taller than her head.

The outdoors are in this Southern California girl’s blood. Her grandfather was from Montana. She joined her father on an African safari at age 10. She shot cans and paper plates with her father and grandpa as a kid. Her mother taught her to dove hunt. The family vacations were out under the stars, roughing it in the woods, Grandpa telling stories at the campfire, like the time he once shot a deer, stepped over what he thought was a carcass and the deer stood up and ran off, grandpa riding it like a bucking bronco.

All of her favorite memories are tied up in hunting. Like when she was a kid hunting with her family in Yuma, Ariz., and the game warden stopped her. The young Rhode was carrying a ton of birds, two away from the limit.

“Who shot your birds for you?” the game warden sternly said to her.

“I shot them,” the little girl told the game warden.

A moment later, two birds came flying out of the bush, and Rhode shot them. The stunned game warden walked away, simply saying, “Have a nice day.”

So the fact she won her fifth medal on Sunday or that she’s well on her way to the status of Olympic legend? It’s all just a side benefit of making a living off a sport she loves.

“When big monster buck steps out on you, you feel pressure at that moment,” she told FOXSports.com. “It’s very much same as when you get down to that last target. It’s hard to focus on the pressure when you’re having such a good time.”

She’s a great Olympic story, no doubt: from her collection of 5,000 rare children’s books and 14 historic restored cars, to the fact she brings her gold medals to speaking engagements and passes them around so often that the gold has worn off a bit, on down to overcoming adversity: the breast cancer scare earlier this year when a lump was discovered or the time her $15,000 shotgun was stolen. And now this, an American Olympic record that might never be broken.

“One thing I’ve learned over five Olympics, it’s really about the journey, the good, the bad, the in-between,” Rhode said Sunday.

“It’s really what hits you when you’re watching the flag go up and hearing the national anthem. I remember my dad telling me, ‘Someday, you’re going to have to shoot well in the rain.’ I hate to admit it today, but he was right. It definitely poured and it was challenging. The lighting was challenging.

“But I think that’s what the Olympics are all about, overcoming those bumps and sticking to it and never giving up and hopefully all the stars aligning and coming home with the gold like today.”

She got gold on Sunday. She plans to go for another one in three days in a different shooting event. Then more in Rio in 2016. After that, who knows? One thing is guaranteed: Even though much of America won’t remember the name Kim Rhode, it’s a name that’ll be known in Olympic circles for a very long time.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.
 

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