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BEIJING 2008

Different event, but Rhode still has a shot

August 13, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- The most decorated member of the U.S. Olympic shooting team goes to work wearing faded blue jeans, a weathered gun vest, a white Nike baseball cap and protective glasses with a yellow tint.

And did we mention the string of pearls?

"The pearls are just really beautiful. Girlie, I guess," Kimberly Rhode said.

Annie Oakley, meet Christian Dior.

"In our sport, a lot of people think you have to be a big burly man," Rhode said. "And you don't. It all comes down to the mental, the hand-eye coordination. And being able to do it 1,000 times."

Which is how she has come to blast stereotypes and clay targets at the same time.

Rhode, a gregarious, soft-spoken, 29-year-old veterinary student, learned to shoot when she learned to walk, won her first Olympic title while in high school and spends much of her free time reading to grade-school kids, planning her wedding and collecting antiques.

"I love cars. I dance. I like to have my fingernails done and my hair done," she said. "You only live once and you've got to try to do it all."

What Rhode does best, though, is wield a shotgun, winning two golds and a bronze in the last three Olympics and setting so many world records she has lost count.

"It's a lot," she said. "It's up there in the 20s or 30s. Maybe more."

But Thursday in Beijing, Rhode, who was born in Whittier and grew up in El Monte, faces the biggest challenge of her career. After watching her dominate the women's double trap competition over the last 12 years, the International Shooting Sports Federation and the International Olympic Committee removed the event from the Beijing Games. So Rhode is moving to international skeet.

"It's like a diver going to swimming," said Richard Rhode, her father and coach. "It's totally different."

Yet Rhode has already begun the transition, winning a World Cup title and setting a world record last year in her first major international skeet competition.

"It changes everything, from your gun to your mechanics," said Rhode, who won her first major shooting title when she was 13.

In double trap, competitors start with their guns mounted, shooting from five stations at targets moving straight away from them. In skeet, competitors begin with their guns at their hip, must negotiate eight stations and shoot at targets flying horizontally, on a random delay, from different sides.

"I had to learn all the little sudden nuances," said Rhode, who had shot skeet before but never practiced it. "It's like starting all over. It's the best way I can describe it.

"It was a learning curve. But at the same time it's kind of cool because it's something different."

But there have been hurdles. Rhode twisted her right knee in a freak sightseeing accident at this spring's World Cup in Germany, adding to a long list of maladies that includes a torn rotator cuff, tennis elbow, a swollen wrist and tendinitis that prevents her from raising her right arm above her head. Some of the injuries were so bad, three doctors told Rhode to give up shooting while she was still a teenager.

"I proved them wrong," she said with a smile. "I proved them all wrong."

Both of Rhode's parents were competitive club shooters who taught their only child the sport when she was old enough to hold a gun, sitting her in her father's lap and having her blast away at paper plates or tin cans. From there it progressed to moving targets, and eventually friends began encouraging the Rhodes to enter their daughter in club events.

"You don't really set out to go to the Olympics," said Richard Rhode, a retired marine biologist. "You just kind of progress."

One key to Rhode's success, her father said, is her uncommon hand-eye coordination. But she also works hard at her sport, shooting as many as 1,000 rounds a day -- at a cost of more than $350 -- at the Oak Tree Gun Club in Newhall, which built a modern skeet range for her to train on.

"She is phenomenal. I take breaks to go out and watch her shoot," said range manager Gene Gulseth. "I've seen her shoot standing on her head. She's taught me things I've never known."

Gulseth isn't the only one for whom Rhode has put on a show. Before her second Olympics, she did some trick shooting for George W. Bush, who was then running for president.

"We got bored," Rhode said, explaining how she learned to shoot everything from pennies to aspirin. "You can always find a challenge, but it was just to break up the monotony and keep it interesting."

Rhode is planning another break after the Olympics, one that will include her marriage to longtime boyfriend Mike Harryman. (While shooting she puts her engagement ring in a vest pocket to "keep it close to my heart.")

Also on the horizon is an increased presence on the Outdoor Channel, where she co-hosts a weekly hunting show, learning to ride a dirt bike and finishing her coursework at Cal Poly Pomona, where she's pursuing degrees in animal science, business and art.

Retirement, however, isn't in her gun sight.

"Who knows how many years I'll be doing this?" she said.

"I'm not retiring after this Olympics; I'll set that record straight. I just keep taking it one year at a time, one Olympics at a time."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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