Kim Rhode is not your typical Olympian
We tend to picture our most distinguished Olympians as residents of Valhalla, a little aloof, not entirely earth-bound.
Yet the woman who could become one of the most decorated U.S. athletes in history this summer lives in Monrovia, Calif., and has an outgoing, relentlessly sunny personality. She makes her own fresh pasta. She can build a car from the ground up. She collects antique children's books. Her mom keeps her schedule and her dad is her coach. Her name is Kim Rhode and her blog is modestly subtitled "just a girl shooting guns and stuff."
In short, Rhode is the girl next door who grew up to be a woman with a remarkable skill set.
Rhode, 33, who will compete in skeet and trap at the London Olympics, could become the first American athlete to medal in an individual sport in five straight Games if she reaches the podium again. Teresa Edwards did it in a team sport (basketball) and swimmer Dara Torres has won medals in individual and relay events in five non-consecutive Olympics. But Rhode is distinctive in her consistency and longevity at the top, and above all for her ability to keep herself interested through years of tedious training in a sport that doesn't confer a lot of fame on its standouts.
"I have come to recognize that the Olympics are about more than the medals or what you've done, it's about the bigger picture of the journey," Rhode said during a recent interview in New York. "To say my journey wasn't recognized, it does make you sad to say that, but at the same time I know it wasn't intentional or out of spite. Maybe it just wasn't my time to shine. Maybe it was someone else's. Maybe their story was amazing. I can't really say that I'm upset about it."
As the old Broadway song goes, Rhode has been doing anything you can do better on ranges around the world since the 1996 Atlanta Games, when she won a gold medal in her Olympic debut as a 17-year-old double trap shooter. She earned a bronze in the discipline in 2000 and a second gold in 2004.
When the International Olympic Committee eliminated double trap for women after the Athens Games, Rhode switched to skeet, a childhood love, and won a silver medal in 2008 in Beijing. That may sound like an easy enough transition -- both events involve aiming shotguns at targets, right? -- but Rhode cheerfully debunks that impression, along with any lingering bias about the physical demands of her sport.
"In double trap, you start with the gun mounted," she said, digging into a plate of appetizers in an Italian trattoria across the street from Madison Square Garden. "In skeet, you start with gun at your hip, you can't move until the bird's in the air, and then you mount. So it has to be perfect. The gun mount from hip to shoulder is 90 percent of the game.
"You're talking about building your arms to lift a nine-and-a-half-pound shotgun five hundred to a thousand times a day in practice. When you're tired or jet-lagged, you may not get it to the exact spot where you need to. You have to swing with the target, so you're not only lifting but driving with a target that's going about 65 miles per hour."
All the calluses Rhode had developed from years of double trap training did her no good. Practicing the new gun mount chafed the skin on her face raw and made her fingers bleed. And then there were the personal dynamics among a totally new group of competitors, some of whom weren't completely thrilled to see a triple Olympic medalist stride onto their turf.
"I understand about having a dream and a goal and wanting to do the best you can," Rhode said, smiling, as she does frequently. "I get that. I get how much work and dedication there is. There were points on that road where I said, 'What did I get myself into?' Ultimately, what kept me going was I really, truly wanted it. A lot of people said it couldn't be done. It wasn't an easy road. That's all I'm gonna say."
Bret Erickson, USA Shooting's national shotgun coach and a four-time Olympian himself, said Rhode "trains harder than anyone in our country or in the world," but he also attributes her success to balance -- an even temperament and a wide array of non-shooting interests. He said he has never seen her openly vent frustration, and she rebounds well from disappointment.
On the first day of skeet competition at last month's World Cup held at the Olympic venue in London, Rhode missed an unaccustomed three of her first 25 targets in blustery rain and wind, but rallied the next day to take a bronze medal. Last March, she hit 75 of 75 in qualifying to set a world record.
"I've seen her shoot some really bad rounds, and she'll turn around and say, 'Well, I screwed that up,'" Erickson said. "She shrugs it off and keeps going. Another key factor is that she doesn't dwell on it. She gets away from [shooting] and lets her mind and body rest."
One of Rhode's escapes is her collection of 4,000 first-edition children's books, which she started after moving into a 1922 Craftsman house with bookcases that cried out to be filled with handsome volumes. Her first passion was for the "Wizard of Oz" series and its original illustrator, William Wallace Denslow. She is a devotee of Kate Greenaway and Arthur Rackham, whose art became synonymous with dozens of children's classics, and can discuss the evolution of illustrations with authority.
Rhode also has a garage full of antique cars -- 13 at the moment -- including a 1917 Model T Speedster and a couple of Model A's. Her favorite remains the sporty '65 AC Shelby Cobra she built with her father's supervision over a five-year period starting in 1996. "It was a good guy-trolling car," she said.
That particular kind of cruising ended when she met Mike Harryman, whom she married in 2009. He works in the air conditioning and heating business, but his first love is playing guitar, singing and writing songs for a band called Fishing for Neptune. She taught him to shoot. He can't really reciprocate -- "You would pay me not to sing," Rhode said -- but when a friend asked the couple to deejay a birthday party, she jumped at the chance and tweeted her pleasure: "Kept 100 people dancing for 3 hours! Lol."
Rhode considers her vocation part of a greater affection for the outdoor life, nurtured by her father, Richard, and mother, Sharon, from the time she can remember and solidified on an African safari when she was 10. She is dedicated to sharing her enthusiasm with urban kids through various organizations to "get them more in touch with dirt," as she puts it.
"In today's world, so many of us sit and watch TV and enjoy the outdoors on television instead of actually going out and enjoying hiking and camping and fishing and really experiencing it," she said. "The dirt and the cold and the beauty of it that you just can't grasp [indoors], the smell of sage and the smell of the different flowers when you're out in it."
London will be Rhode's first Olympics with a new gun, relatively speaking, at least. The treasured Perazzi she called "Old Faithful" and used in four Summer Games was stolen from her father's pickup truck in the parking lot of a shopping mall in the fall of 2008 by thieves who followed her and knew what they were looking for. It was recovered more than a year later during the routine search of a parolee's house, but in the meantime, fans -- she still doesn't know who they were -- chipped in to buy her a new $13,000 Perazzi. Rhode cried on stage when the gun was given to her in a surprise presentation at Cal Poly-Pomona, where she was studying at the time.
"Old Faithful" is locked away in a safe now. Sentiment was trumped by the practical reality that she'd gotten accustomed to training with the donated gun. "The fact that so many people believed in me this gun has a cool story as well," Rhode said.
And at least one more chapter to write.