Joy of sport drives Kim Rhode

LONDON -- It's no accident that Kim Rhode is drawn to classic old children's books and antique cars. She is a throwback to the Olympians of decades ago who did sports for sheer joy.

Yes, Rhode makes her living as a professional shooting athlete. She has sponsors and speaking engagements and causes. But the reason she has won Olympic medals in five consecutive Summer Games -- the first American athlete ever to do so in an individual event -- is because sport remains a pure endeavor to her, a family outing with the promise of an ice cream cone at the end just like it was when she was a kid. That's what has kept her interested. Her phenomenal vision, reflexes, discipline and temperament explain the rest.

"I've never felt this good at the Olympics," said Rhode, 33, who won gold in women's skeet, her fifth shooting medal, 16 years after her first in the double trap event. She'll take aim at another medal Saturday in the trap or "bunker" event. Furthermore, she has already committed to competing in 2016 and likely beyond.

"I was really happy coming into this with this type of ease," Rhode said. "It was just one of those points where you realize there's nothing more you could have done and there's nothing more you can give. You just lay it all out there."

Watching Rhode hit a perfect 25 skeet targets in the final round Sunday after hitting 74 of 75 in preliminaries was, in its own way, as mesmerizing as seeing a pitcher paint the corners or a basketball player sink free throws with a championship game on the line.

"Really, truthfully, it's unbelievable, that score that she shot," her husband, Mike Harryman, said of Rhode's dominant nine-bird win over her closest competitor in an event usually won by one or two.

"Whether it's the Olympics or a World Cup, I believe she goes out there and shoots for herself and for the love of doing it. We shoot every day, and she shoots out there like she shoots in practice. I couldn't believe how calm she was. I'm a wreck."

Rhode moved deliberately around the semicircle of shooting "stations," waiting her turn behind her rivals, swinging her gun onto her shoulder with an economy of movement that can come only from endless repetition and settling in to wait for the "birds" to sail out from the little huts on either side of the range. Shooters have to have all five senses firing to be good at what they do, yet Rhode looked as though she were in a trance.

She started shooting in sunshine and kept nailing the birds as a nasty weather front passed through, bringing wind and rain. Every now and then light would catch on the strands of tinsel she had woven into her hair earlier this year, a playful reminder of the chunk of precious metal she was gunning for.

With each reverberating shot, a puff of colored smoke dissipated against the dark green backdrop and Rhode -- simply doing what she has done many times in practice -- moved closer to a world and Olympic record. She said she did her best to find rainy days to train in her native Southern California and shot with the same kind of backdrop so she would feel at home on the range.

"It was an honor to be here with her, to be able to sit in that final and watch her do what she did," said national team coach Todd Graves, a four-time Olympian himself. "She was on autopilot. No doubts in her mind."

Rhode was 50-for-50 in the first two rounds of 25 and missed her only target in the third round. "The one that got away," she sighed behind the broad smile that opens her face like a sunflower. "I wish I could come up with, you know, 'The sun was in my eyes, the rain hit my glasses,' but it just comes down to, sometimes you just miss. I wish I could take it back and go for it. A hundred would have been really cool, but it just leaves something for 2016."

Yes, the Rio Games. Her father and primary coach, Richard, said he thinks Kim could have three or four more Olympics in her. (She noted to reporters that the oldest-ever Olympic medalist was 72-year-old shooter Oscar Swahn of Sweden, who bagged a silver in the quaintly named 100-meter running deer double shots in 1920.)

This seems entirely believable. In an era when sports convert families into 24/7 cottage industries and dysfunctional, smothering parent-child coaching relationships abound, the Rhodes stand out as beacons of humility and normality. Kim's father trains with her every day. Her mother, Sharon, keeps her schedule. As much as Kim trains, she also escapes to ski and hunt and scuba dive. When she arrived in London after some travel delays, rather than holing up to contemplate the pressure of making history, she went book shopping and scored a first-edition Beatrix Potter, "The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes."

"My wife and I never had to push Kim to shoot," Richard Rhode said. His naturally husky voice was even lower after watching his daughter's feat from the front row of the small grandstand, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Shot Puller" in honor of all the birds he has sent flying in front of her, a pastime that can cost hundreds of dollars a day. "It was more like, 'Gee, you sure you want to shoot that much? This is gonna cost a lot of money.'

"You can't make somebody get up at 6 in the morning to do their homework so in the afternoon they can do their shooting and training. I could have told her to do that, but in a year she'd burn out and that would be the end of it."

Rhode knew she had mathematically clinched gold after the fifth of six stations, and so did the crowd, which cheered lustily. She turned and waved and for the first time all day, felt her composure wavering. "I didn't want to cry because I didn't want it to be blurry," she said. It wasn't until she was standing atop the podium with the U.S. national anthem playing behind her that she allowed herself a few tears.

It never gets old when you seldom miss.