By Aimee Berg | March 12, 2012, 9 a.m. (ET)
Kim Rhode

Teamusa.org had a rare chance to hang out with shotgun ace Kim Rhode in New York City in early March. It was her first visit to Manhattan, but due to complicated gun laws in the city, the four-time Olympic medalist did not bring her firearm to her Chelsea hotel.

There was still plenty to discuss. Her four Olympics had been well-documented, and so had her recent breast-cancer scare, so we aimed for the offbeat, like the surprising place her husband took her on a first date; which NBA star she’s kept in touch with since her 1996 Olympic debut; what goofy singer entered her mind moments before she won her first gold medal at age 17; a riveting account of how her prized gun was stolen and why the thieves did not get her Olympic medals; also, an eye-popping fact about the physical rigors of shotgun shooting.

First, know this: Kim is not the first generation of Rhodes to shoot. Her paternal grandfather, C.C., was a cowboy, a cattle rancher, and an avid hunter. “He had 50 to 60 hounds,” Rhode said. “Every day he would hunt with the hounds, the coon, and the bugling of the horn.” According to family lore, C.C. turned down a chance to play for the Dodgers and Notre Dame (in football). While he didn’t live to see Kim compete in the Olympics, her success would have been impossible without him. “My grandfather taught my dad to shoot,” she said. In turn, “my dad taught my mom, and my mom and dad taught me.”

Rhode has no siblings, and shooting was the family glue. “It’s not like soccer where you drop off your kid and it’s ‘Have a nice day,’” she said. “You actually have to be involved. My dad’s out there throwing targets, mom’s shooting. They were very strict on safety, responsibility, and discipline.”

Now, a day doesn’t go by when Rhode doesn’t pull a trigger. From her home in Southern California, she’ll drive 80 to 105 miles to a range and shoot 500 to 1000 targets per day. Her shotgun weighs nine pounds, and all the reps means she hoists 4,500 to 9,000 lbs. daily.

In addition to practicing skeet so she can turn her 2008 Olympic silver medal into gold in London, Rhode also practices trap shooting with hopes of competing in two events in London. (She will try to earn a qualifying score at a World Cup trap event in Tucson later this month.) In trap, athletes get two shots at each target, and the target comes out randomly from one of three machines.

Double trap (Rhode’s original Olympic discipline), is different. Double trap required athletes to hit two clay targets released simultaneously.

Double trap was discontinued after the 2004 Games, but Rhode’s fond memories of it remain. In her Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games, just a week after her 17th birthday, Rhode was leading the field entering the six-woman final of double trap. When the P.A. announcer told the crowd they were about to broadcast live to 35 million people, the number caused Rhode’s mind to flip to a goofy singer whose fame had peaked about a decade before she was born.

“I had been on the Jay Leno show with the Monkees, and backstage Mickey Dolenz goes, ‘Kim, are you nervous?’ and I go, ‘Yeah!’ because I had never done anything like that, and he goes, ‘Good, because you’re going live to 35 million people,’ and pushed me out on stage,” she recalled. “So I thought of Mickey Dolenz as I started to take my position.”

Distracted, Rhode missed several of her first 10 targets. With 30 to go, she steeled her focus by repeating a song fragment – a random tune from her father’s Wurlitzer juke box – over and over in her head. It worked, and the teenager became an Olympic champion by two birds. In the media whirlwind that followed, Rhode bonded with gymnast Kerri Strug who had famously stuck the landing on an injured ankle in the vault to help the US women win team gold. After the Games, Rhode remembers running around a Las Vegas amusement park and riding a roller coaster with Strug, but the two eventually fell out of touch.

Rhode has, however, maintained contact with another iconic Olympian: Karl Malone. “In 1996, I watched the Dream Team. I remember getting on my chair, cheering, going to an event afterward, and hanging out with him,” she said. “He’s a shooter and an outdoorsman. Big time! He’s been asking me all about shooting and tricks and tips and telling me about all his stuff. We haven’t gone head-to-head yet, but he’s a very good shot.”

Seven years after meeting Malone, Rhode met a guy name Mike through mutual friends. By then she had two Olympic medals (including double trap bronze from the Sydney Games), but when Mike had asked about her interests, she mentioned everything but marksmanship.

“I just told him I liked to travel,” she said. By awkward coincidence, Mike took her to a shooting range for their first date.

“He had no idea,” Rhode recalled. “As I progressed through the stations and did really well, people kept saying, ‘Hi Kim!’ and he looked at me like, ‘Who ARE you?’”

After two more Olympics and two more medals (2004 double trap gold, 2008 skeet silver), she and Mike were engaged.   

While planning the wedding, however, Rhode’s gun was stolen.

In 2008, shortly after the Beijing Games, Rhode was on her way home from filming a public service announcement when she and her mother stopped in Temecula, Calif., to grab lunch and check out a Williams-Sonoma Home outlet. While they were shopping, someone threw a spark plug through the passenger-side window of her dad’s ratty old grey pickup truck, rifled through a heap of clothes and equipment, and stole her prized Olympic double trap gun.

“I was actually stalked for it,” she said, “and it didn’t matter where I had stopped.

Surveillance video showed them going into the store, making sure we were busy and coming back out. One guy was looking out while the other was robbing.

“Police couldn’t understand why they had picked this car – so they figured they had been following me. Inside, we had tools; they set them aside. I had some money; they didn’t take money. They took everything on top of [the gun], threw it in the front seat, and went for the case. They wanted my medals, too; that’s why they were digging. I had all four medals in my purse.

“I called my dad and he thought we were kidding,” she said. “Then it was panic mode.”

The next day Rhode had an important selection match in Colorado Springs to determine the US travel team, and she didn’t have a gun. “I got my trap stock, I think we borrowed a barrel, and pieced it all together. In practice, I’d shoot a couple stations, adjust, shoot, adjust. After 75 targets, it was match time. I missed first place by one bird. It was one of the happiest moments, like whoooooooooooo.”

Within a year, the gun was recovered.

The first thing she noticed: “The stock had been completely loaded with stickers from Olympic equipment control. They removed all the stickers so no one would notice, but they put it back in the case that had my full name in four-inch gold letters embroidered inside. I don’t want to make them mad, but they weren’t the brightest light bulbs.

“I’m so thankful to have gotten it back,” she added. “It’s part of me. You shoot for so many years through thick and thin with it.”

Although the shotgun still works, Rhode no longer competes with it.

“When I came back home [from the selection match], a bunch of people came out of nowhere and said, ‘How can we help you?’” Now, she uses two guns that the shooting community donated to her when she was in a jam.

Rhode may be carrying new equipment to London, but she values tradition. She plans to march in the Opening Ceremony – as she has in all four of her past Games. If she takes a medal this summer, she would be the first American to win five medals in five games in an individual sport.

But why stop there?

“I wouldn’t put it past me to go for another four or five [Olympics],” she said. “Why not? By the time I’m 53, I could have gone to five more.”

Okay then. See you in 2032.

Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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