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Kim Rhode takes aim at an Olympic milestone

HELENE ELLIOTT

Nominated to the London Games, the standout shooter has a chance to be the first American to medal in five straight Olympics in an individual sport.

May 23, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Kim Rhode will attempt to become the first American individual competitor to medal in five consecutive Olympic appearances when she competes in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
Kim Rhode will attempt to become the first American individual competitor… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Kim Rhode isn't easily rattled.

She competed against adults at 13 to win her first world title in the shooting sport of American skeet. She won an Olympic gold medal in double trap at the 1996 Atlanta Games five days after her 17th birthday, the youngest female Olympic shooting champion in the Games' history, and returned to win bronze in 2000 and gold again in 2004.

When women's double trap was dropped from the Olympics, she switched to skeet and virtually started over. All she did was set a world record in her first World Cup event and win a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Her resilience was tested again in September 2008 when her customized Perazzi shotgun was stolen from her truck, forcing her to build a new one the night before beginning the selection process for the 2012 London Olympics. She made the national team and got the gun back two months later. And although the qualifying process was tougher this time, the 31-year-old from El Monte with the down-to-earth demeanor quickly earned the required point total and last month became the first U.S. athlete nominated to the London team.

That gave Rhode — pronounced "Roady" — a chance to be the first American athlete to medal in five straight Olympics in an individual sport. "She could easily go for another five or six Olympics," said her father, Richard, also her coach.

She had no place in her life for fear or uncertainty until the day she found a two-inch lump in her breast. She underwent surgery a few weeks ago.

"It was a scary time. I thought I had cancer at first," she said. "It wasn't, though, thank goodness. It's just another one of those things that really helps you remember what you have to appreciate. There are so many other people that get the bad news."

Post-operative soreness hampered her for about 10 days, and she resumed practicing last week at the Oak Tree Gun Club in Newhall. Nestled among scrubby hills is the Kim Rhode International Skeet Field, tribute to a woman who stands 5 feet 4 but is a giant in her sport.

"It's been an amazing journey," said Rhode, a 13-time national champion and defending world skeet champion. "This last year and this last Olympics have probably been the most challenging of my career. But I think also it's only going to make it that much sweeter if we succeed in the end.

"It definitely seems like one thing after another — but isn't that life? You've got to just roll with it. That's really what the Olympics stand for. It's not really the medal that defines you. It's the journey and pushing yourself and overcoming obstacles when everybody else says you can't."

Skeet shooters fire from eight stations within a semicircle at clay targets launched horizontally at high and low positions and at random delays. Each shot can travel 1,325 feet per second.

"Some people run a little faster. Some jump a little higher," Richard Rhode said. "But Kim, her eye-hand coordination is phenomenal."

Richard usually clicks the remote that launches targets. Her other companion is her Yorkie puppy Wolfgang, a two-year anniversary present from her husband, Mike Harryman. They taught the dog an especially appropriate trick: When Rhode points a finger and says "bang," Wolfie rolls over and plays dead.

He waited patiently one day last week while Rhode practiced briefly at Oak Tree, one of three facilities she trains at for different light and backgrounds. She has about four weeks to prepare for her next competition, a selection match in Colorado Springs for the Pan American Games.

It's not essential for her to compete, but she's trying to build herself back up and stay on track for the London Games, which are 14 months away. Sore shoulder or not, it would be unwise to bet against her.

"How many times have they told you that you were injured and you couldn't compete again?" Richard said, thinking of her many shoulder and arm problems.

She typically shoots 500 to 1,000 rounds per practice session. "That's a month's worth of shooting for us," said Steve Dodge of Camarillo, one of several retired firefighters who shoot at Oak Tree. "We don't like to watch her because she makes us look so bad."

Those practices can take a few hours or all day. "I might say I'm going to break 25 straight of every target on every station. If I get to 24 and miss I'll start over again," she said. "I'm trying to push myself, make it a mini-competition.

"It could take me 500 rounds on a good day, it could take me 1,000 on a bad day, but I'm not going to leave until I do it."

That determination carries over to her everyday life with Harryman, an air conditioning/heating technician. She has 13 collectible cars — including a Cobra she built from a kit — and is close to earning a degree in food marketing and agribusiness from Cal Poly Pomona.

She also collects antique children's books, promotes gun safety and education and is the national spokeswoman for the charity Kids & Clays, in which shooting sports participants raise money for Ronald McDonald House charities.

Oh, and she's considering another challenge: qualifying for the London Olympics in trap shooting.

She thought about it "before all this stuff went on with my surgery" because it might pad the U.S medal total, and it's still on her mind. "I would also have shot all three events in the Olympics, which I think would be kind of cool," she said.

"It's a lot of maybes in there. I'm not making any promises."

No promises — but no fear, either.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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