By Sarah Higgins | July 11, 2015, 12:45 a.m. (ET)
Kim Rhode carries the American flag for the United States during the Opening Ceremony for the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games at Rogers Centre on July 10, 2015 in Toronto.


TORONTO -- Team USA’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto might be a Pan Ams rookie, but as the only U.S. Olympian to earn individual medals at five consecutive Games Kim Rhode is no newcomer.

Rode, a five-time U.S. Olympian in shooting, is one of many veterans sharing the stage with the next generation of U.S. athletes at the Pan Ams.

“This is a unique experience that combines some of our veteran Olympians — we have Olympic champions, we have world champions — with athletes who are in a multi-sport environment for the first time,” the United States Olympic Committee’s chef de mission and chief of sport performance, Alan Ashley, said.

Rhode, responsible for ushering in the United States’ team, didn’t take that burden lightly: “Carrying that flag really is just like a podium moment. You’re waiting for someone to pinch you. It just takes your breath away.”

“Having my teammates nominate me, it’s just humbling,” said Rhode, one of 625 athletes on the U.S. team. “Getting that strap on and being handed the flag, to represent your country like that is just overwhelming.”

While Rhode has already helped earn Team USA a quota spot in Rio for women’s skeet, athletes in 10 sports will compete in Toronto for Olympic qualification. Two sports – modern pentathlon and table tennis – can qualify individual athletes, while team sports such as field hockey and men’s water polo will try to secure a trip to Brazil next summer.

“There are going to be an important two weeks for us from the qualifications standpoint. We have sports where there are qualifications for the Olympic Games in Rio next summer on the line,” USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said.

“This is what we came to do,” Rhode said. “Whether it’s a spot for Rio or a gold medal, everyone’s going out there to do what they trained four years to do.”

Even without Rio qualification on the line, Team USA’s non-Olympic sports are enjoying their time in the spotlight.

“It’s an opportunity for a lot of our athletes who won’t get to represent their nation at the Olympic Games to represent their nation here. It’s really a great opportunity for our athletes to feel like they’re making a difference and representing their nation proudly,” Blackmun said.

The Games are taking place from July 10-26 and feature all 28 sports on the Olympic program, including nine additional sports. The 17-day competition features more than 6,000 athletes from 41 countries.

“This is when the reality sets in,” Rhode said. “It really is that going for the gold kind of moment.”