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London Olympics: Some events are age-friendly

LONDON OLYMPICS

For every sport like gymnastics, where competitors mull retirement before they can legally drink, there is an event like archery, shooting, rowing in which some medalists qualify for AARP memberships.

August 04, 2012|By Stacy St. Clair
  • Kim Rhode competes in the 2nd round of the Skeet Women event at the London Olympics.
Kim Rhode competes in the 2nd round of the Skeet Women event at the London… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

LONDON — There's not much left for Kim Rhode to do in her Olympic career.

She's the only U.S. athlete to win five medals in five consecutive Games. The shooter from El Monte is also the first female to compete in all three shotgun disciplines at the Olympics.

And moments after finishing ninth in the women's trap event, with her gold medal in women's skeet secured days earlier, she indicated she intends to compete in Rio four years from now.

PHOTOS: 2012 London Olympics, Day 8

She'll be 37 then.

It's an almost ancient age for a female gymnast, swimmer or sprinter. But for a shooter? Thirty-seven doesn't even raise an eyebrow.

"I'm not that old!" said a laughing Rhode, who first competed at the Atlanta Games when she was 16. "When it comes down to actual targets under my belt in an individual round, I still have a lot to shoot."

Therein lies the eclectic beauty of the Summer Games, where several low-impact, no-contact sports allow Olympians to compete for decades after their international debut.

For every sport like gymnastics, where competitors consider retirement before they can legally drink, there is an event like archery, shooting, rowing or equestrian in which some medalists occasionally qualify for AARP memberships.

At the age of 52 years and 317 days, Lesley Thompson-Willie became the most-decorated rower in Canadian history last week when she won her record fifth medal — a silver — in the women's eight competition. The second-place finish also made the legendary coxswain the second-oldest person ever to earn an Olympic rowing medal.

Thompson-Willie, a teacher and librarian from London, Ontario, would not say whether she will attempt to break that record four years from now in Rio.

"It's not just a matter of me deciding," she said. "You have to fit into the program. We have a good program running and if I fit into it, I don't know."

But it's not just the medal contenders who keep coming back.

South African archer Karen Hultzer, 46, took up her sport five years ago to satisfy a competitive hunger and became her country's national champion a year later. She lost an early-round match in the individual competition last week, shooting a dismal 3 and 4 in the final set, but she plans to stick with the sport.

"Right now I'm going to take a holiday, but then I'm certainly continuing with my archery," she said. "I'm using this as a practice Games almost for Rio."

The oldest competitor here, 71-year-old Hiroshi Hoketsu of Japan, finished 40th in the dressage event — nearly 50 years after competing in his first Olympics. The 41st-place rider, 44-year-old Jacqueline Brooks of Canada, hadn't even been born when Hoketsu first represented his country at the Tokyo Games in 1964.

A retired pharmaceutical company executive, Hoketsu re-committed himself to the sport in 2003 with the hopes of making another Olympic team. He achieved that goal in 2008, when he placed ninth in the team event in Beijing and earned the nickname "The Hope of Old Men" from the Chinese media.

He doubts, however, that he will compete in Rio.

It's not that Hoketsu thinks that he'll be too old. He just worries that his 15-year-old horse, Whisper, will be.

"I want to go, but my horse is too old for that and it's too hard to find another one," he said.

A quiet man with a formal demeanor befitting his sport, Hoketsu seemed a bit embarrassed by the fuss being made here about his age. Rather than be the standard bearer for older athletes, he has insisted on no special treatment — even though it means staying in the athletes village with people old enough to be his grandchildren.

"The young people don't bother me," he said. "I have a single room."

Besides the obvious aches and pains, older Olympians face other, less obvious disadvantages. When Rhode was a teenage phenom, her parents covered her expenses and made sure she got to practice on time. Now that she's an adult, she's responsible for her own bills, schedule, laundry and training habits.

"Things change and priorities change," she said. "I think I definitely now have a bigger grasp on what it takes to be here."

By that same token, Rhode also appreciates the experience more than she did as a teenager at the Atlanta Games.

"When I was 16, I don't think I really realized what it all meant," she said. "When I got home, I saw what being an Olympian and representing your country meant, how it affects other people and how you touch their lives.... It's those moments in the journey that keep us coming back again and again."

sstclair@tribune.com

Twitter.com/stacystclair

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