Kim Rhode became the youngest woman in Olympic history to win a shooting sport Gold Medal when she clinched first place in Double Trap at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia just days after her seventeenth birthday. While that is beyond impressive, it wasn’t her first win at the global level.
She got her start in competitive shooting at only 10 years of age, shooting American Skeet. At 13 she won a World Championship, and became the captain of the All-American Team shortly thereafter.
The championships and accolades have been accumulating at a precipitous pace since then. She has medaled in an unprecedented six consecutive Olympic games since her debut in 1996, and has been awarded the female athlete of the year as many times.
In the 2012 London Summer Olympics, she took Gold in skeet while tying the world record, breaking 99 out of 100 clays. And, though she didn’t know it at the time, she was carrying her son. She’s also the first Olympian to win a medal on five different continents.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Kim for a lengthy interview. When you talk to Kim, you get the feeling that she is genuine. “It’s a way of life for me, it truly is,” she says. And it would have to be a way of life to put in the hours needed to continue to win against the best shots in the world year after year.
But despite all of her wins, she remains humble and credits much of her success to the love and support that her family has provided.
“I feel very blessed that I have the opportunity to do what I do, because I love my job. I love what I do. I love the people in it. I love the places I get to go see. I feel very, very fortunate to have found it so young to have done it for so long and to continue to be able to do it. Shooting has brought a lot of joy into my life and I just feel very, very fortunate to be able to do what I do, to wear the red, white, and blue and win, because it is a lot of fun.”
The Great Equalizer
It has been said, over and over again, that God made man, and Samuel Colt made them equal. Kim Rhode believes they can all sort it out on the trap or skeet field.
In other sports, your stature determines your success. In basketball, a 6’ 5” tall male with the ability to leap four feet vertically at the drop of a hat will likely dominate smaller competitors, whether or not they practice as much their smaller rivals. In baseball, pitchers with longer arms have a mechanical advantage that allows them to throw faster than other players who aren’t built the same way.
None of that matters when it comes to shotgun sports; neither a 5’ 3” tall woman nor 7’ 2” man posses an advantage over the other. It all comes down to the preparation that the individual puts in.
“One thing that the shooting sports brings that no other sport does is the ability for men and women to truly compete on an equal playing field. It creates the opportunity for people who may not be a jock, or have that particular body and physique or may not be tall enough or short enough or strong enough. It gives anybody, even the Para Olympians that may be in wheelchairs or have other issues in their lives, the freedom to be part of something.
“That’s what shooting does. It brings people together like no other sport can.”
Early Days, Cape Buffalo, and a Family of Hunters
Kim’s pedigree can be traced to a time before America was settled.
My family has a rich history in the United States and I love that. I’ve done my family tree all the way back to my dad’s great, great, grandfather, who was one of the 25 hand picked men under General Sibley that went in and tried to save Custer during the battle of Little Big Horn.
“He was in some of the first explorations into Yellowstone, and opened some of the first wilderness forts. He was also one of General Cook’s personal guards. I found a 196-page military record of it, with depositions from General Sibley and General Cook talking his military service.
“On my mother’s side I have two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. To me, history is really important so I tend to grasp onto family heirlooms and those family photos.”
Before she became the greatest shotgun athlete of all time, Kim Rhode was just small girl with a love of the outdoors, growing up with a family that never lost the sense of adventure that led her forebears to help settle the West. Born and raised in a family of houndsmen, she was loaded into a truck with the clan’s dogs and taken to the hills of Northern California countryside in pursuit of bears every Thanksgiving. It was on those jaunts that she would delight in the sounds of the dogs working in the distance.
“There’s something about the way the dog barks that tells you what’s happening even as they’re miles and miles away. Are they running? Or are they fighting? Are they straightening out the track? You can tell all that. Is it big? Is it up a tree? You know just by the way the dog barking. I don’t know quite how to explain it, but you just know.”
Her family didn’t just chase bears; they hunted nearly everything in season. Of course, this included birds.
It was on one of her earliest dove hunts that Rhode learned her shooting ability was probably better than most adults, even though her age could be measured in the single digits.
“I was like six or seven years of age when I got my very first limit of doves by myself,” Kim recalls with a laugh. “I was out in the field with my parents and I was kind of standing off by myself a little bit when the game warden came up to me and wanted to know who had shot my birds for me.
“I was trying to tell him that I shot them. I did. And he was like, ‘No, come on honey. No one’s going to get in trouble. You can tell me who shot your birds for you.’”
About that time Kim’s father, who is walking toward her, yells “over you” to announce the doves flushing in her general direction. Kim took two shots and dropped two birds to finish out her limit.
“The game warden couldn’t turn around fast enough. He walked away and said, ‘Have a nice day.’”
Time in Africa
Rhode’s hunting experience isn’t limited to North America, as she spent some time on the Dark Continent in her youth.
Beginning when she was about 10 years old, she would accompany her family to South Africa on extended jaunts. She spent enough time there to attend school and learn to speak Afrikaans. It also gave her an opportunity to hunt one of the largest game animals in the world, the fearsome Cape Buffalo.
Chasing Dagga Boys through the bush is difficult for the hardiest big game hunter, but it presents an even greater challenger for a pint-sized adventurer.
“I remember that my shoulder was so bruised from running and walking through the brush with that .375 side-by-side. I was black and blue just from the gun going up and down as I carried it because I was so, so young at the time.”
It Takes A Family
It was her loving family that recognized Rhode’s talent with a shotgun and provided her the training she needed to excel early on. If it weren’t for her parents, she says she never would have started her competition career at the tender age of 10. That’s another thing Rhode loves about shooting sports; the inclusive nature that allows families to spend time together.
“You know its moms with their sons, and fathers with their daughters, or with their sons. It’s really about the camaraderie you have when you’re out there and that’s really I think what draws people to it and has them coming back again and again.
“I don’t think they care if they hit the bird. Obviously that’s a plus, and it makes it a lot more fun—but it’s fun just to be outdoors with your friends and family doing something that you love. And you can do it for a very long time.”
The Hours and the Shells – What It Takes To Be A Champion
Surely, much of Kim’s success can be attributed to her natural abilities. But to stay at the top of a field dominated by the most talented shooters in the world means practice, and lots of it.
“When I’m home and I’m able to, I shoot every single day. Even on Christmas and Thanksgiving,” she says.
Kim shoots a lot, even by world champion standards. On any given day, she’ll turn somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 clay pigeons to dust. She knows that to stay on top, she has to put more effort than the next best competitor, and that isn’t even enough. She also needs the help and support of those around her to succeed.
“It’s not just me; it’s all the athletes that are out there. People don’t realize that dedication that the athletes are putting in,” she says.
“It’s a lot of work, and it takes a lot of support. I think people forget that. It’s not something you do on your own. You have a lot of help from a lot of different people. If I didn’t have my family and my husband giving me support I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today. It’s because of them that I’m where I’m at.”
Even though shooting doesn’t have the same aerobic requirements as 100-meter hurdles or the strength needed for the hammer toss, Rhode still has to stay in shape. She concentrates on strengthening her core and improving flexibility, using low impact exercises.
“I am shooting like 500 to 1,000 rounds a day, so for me it’s about being able to do that the next day and the next day. I don’t want to be sore or stiff. I want to really make sure my reactions are quick.”
Kim turns to Pilates to help build muscle without adding bulk that could interfere with swinging her gun. She uses foam rollers to help her stretch and avoid stiffness and muscle pain. Plus, a strong core also helps in other ways.
“It’s all part of working on balance and coordination. These types of things really help in the kind of shooting I do.”
In shooting sports, you are competing against yourself as much as you are the other athletes. But Kim doesn’t have any mantras she repeats to keep herself focused, or to block negative thoughts. Instead, she relies on her training to keep herself on track.
“It’s like someone called you up out of the blue and hands you a microphone and tells you to give an hour-long talk about something you know nothing about in front of 1,000 people. You’re going to be super nervous, and you’re going to be stressed, and you’re going to wonder what to do. But if you had a month to prepare for it, you’re not going to be as nervous.”
The moment you realize you’ve reached your MQS(minimum qualifying score) in Bunker to be eligible to shoot trap in the Olympics! #Tokyo2020 @TeamUSA @USAShooting @Beretta_USA @TruckVault @winchester @ISSF_Shooting pic.twitter.com/HNweQWN21P— Kim Rhode (@KimRhode) March 19, 2019
“So, at the end of the day, it comes down to how you practice and really facing your fears so that you step up on that line and have no doubt that you can hit every target. Really try to calm yourself to where you can focus on things other than those negative little thoughts that creep in your head, and focus more about the weather and the lighting and what it is you need to do out there.”
Things tend to change throughout the course of a lifetime, and Rhode is not immune from the passage of time. In a career that stretched through her childhood to her motherhood, the challenges she faces have been altered along with her perspective.
“When I was younger, I think the toughest part of training day in and day out was not letting it become monotonous or boring, and not making simple mistakes. Now that I’m a mom and I have a child, the hardest thing for me is to be away. I don’t want to miss anything. As I think any mother would say, your family is number one.”
“I was at the [2012 London] Olympics, and I had just won an Olympic medal representing my country. As I was watching the flag go to the top of the pole I was thinking about the first question I will get asked by the media. How do you feel? What is this like? Is this amazing?
“I’m busy formulating answers to those yet-to-be-asked questions in my head, assuming that’s what they’re going to ask. You know the first question they asked me? ‘Can you comment on Aurora?’”
As an Olympic athlete in the shooting sports, Kim faces a different sort of media attention than athletes in other disciplines.
Instead of getting asked questions about the hard work and dedication it takes to reach the top of a very competitive field or about her strategy and mindset that led to her medal win, she gets questions about a tragic mass murder half a world away.
“Our sport is about responsibility, discipline, focus, and safety, but yet somehow we always get called to comment on those issues,” she says. “Whenever there’s a mass shooting of some sort, we as Olympic Shooters are always asked to comment.”
That makes life difficult for shooting athletes, especially world class competitors like Rhode. When you go though a couple of cases of shotgun shells every day, training becomes an expensive proposition.
Athletes in other events can easily obtain sponsorships that help defer the cost of practicing 365 days a year, but it’s not as easy for those that compete with firearms.
“Because our sport is viewed as being politically incorrect, a lot of our athletes struggle to get sponsorships because people associate the shooting sports with these negative issues that have absolutely nothing to do with what we’re doing,” she says.
And as for the iconic orange cereal box that has honored so many athletes over the decades, “Wheaties won’t touch me because I shoot a firearm,” Rhode says. “It came down to me and another person, and they turned me down because I shoot a gun.”
A High-Volume Shooter in an Anti-Gun State
Rhode also faces other hardships that most athletes don’t. The California of Kim’s youth is gone, replaced with a complicated political landscape that even the most astute poly-sci major can get lost in.
But one thing is certain, the winds of favor no longer blow for the firearm community in the Golden State. Recent legislation has made it difficult for Rhode to even get the ammunition she needs to stay on top of her game.
“Under Prop 63, I can’t receive ammo from the Olympic committee. They used to mail it to me, or they would give it to me in Arizona to try to save some money on shipping and I would drive it across state lines. Both of those options are now illegal.”
The Prop 63 that Kim is referring to is Proposition 63, a 2016 California initiative that, among other things, requires individuals to pass a background check and obtain authorization from the California Department of Justice to purchase ammunition.
These days, ammo sales in California must be made through ammunition vendors licensed by the state, and all sales must be reported to the DOJ. This is particularly difficult for Rhode because of the specialized shells she must use in international competition.
“For international trap, we’re shooting a shell loaded with 24 grams, or 7/8 ounce, of shot, it’s a very specialized load. It’s actually illegal to shoot in American skeet and American trap because it’s too fast. Our shells move at 1,325 feet per second and you’re not allowed shooting over 1,200 in American skeet. So essentially, it’s not something that you find at your local range.”
Rhode, and all ISSF competitors use a very unique shotshell that has a lower shot volume (24 grams) that moves at a higher velocity (1325 fps) than American competitive shooters. At any competition, the judges may elect to examine some of a shooter’s shotshells to make sure they are in compliance with ISSF regulations.
If the shells aren’t up to spec, they are disqualified. Due to the lower shot weights and the incredible speeds of ISSF targets the quality of your shotshell is paramount, and many choose Winchester shells for practice and competition.
The outcome of a competition often comes down to a shootoff with one bird determining the winner, so every shot must be perfect. Needless to say, practicing with the correct ammo is imperative.
To add insult to injury, the regulations put in place by Prop 63 only apply to state residents. If you live in another state, you can bring in all the ammo you wish into California without fear of retribution from law enforcement officials.
Kim says she is honored to represent the United States on the World Stage, and the rest of us should be honored that she chooses to do so.
She just won another World Cup, her second of 2019; an amazing feat since, at the time of this writing, we are not yet halfway through the year. With her level of skill and determination, she will no doubt continue to win, with all the grace and poise of the champion she is.
We can look forward to watching her compete in the World Championship in Italy later this year, at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, and everything else in between.
Kim Rhode is extremely generous with her time and gave us far more information than we could fit in this piece—so, stay tuned for a series of shorter articles in which Kim offers some advice on getting people involved in shooting and the shooting sports, and offers some advice on connecting on those tough shots.