The mere sight of Kim Rhode cocking her shotgun and aiming skyward tends to create churning stomachs in her opponents.
The 36-year-old skeet shooter is the first woman to win three Olympic shooting medals and the only American woman to win medals in an individual event in five consecutive Olympic Games.
But when she steps onto the range Sunday at the 2015 ISSF World Championship Shotgun in Lonato, Italy, with a 2016 Olympic berth on the line, Rhode will face a powerful new threat - her own teammates.
Morgan Craft, 22 of Muncy Valley, Pennsylvania, and Caitlin Connor, 24 of Winnfield, Louisiana, have ascended toward the top of the world rankings in skeet, and actually lead Rhode in USA Shooting’s Olympic Points System entering Sunday's Italian shootout.
Four years ago this would've been unthinkable. With just one Olympic berth available in women’s skeet in 2011, Rhode became the first American athlete in any sport to punch her ticket to London. After the 2012 Olympic Games; however, women's skeet was expanded to include as many as two shooters per country, a moment that opened a world of possibilities for Craft and Connor, who now command international respect in their own right.
“Any one of us could get it now,” Connor said. “Anything can happen at the world championships.”
Shooters first qualify Olympic quota spots for their countries, and then the country determines how those spots are filled. Countries can qualify up to two quota spots in each shooting event.
Athletes who win the most points in USA Shooting’s Olympic points system, and pass the threshold of 30 points in the system, will fill the second quota spot for shotgun events. Team USA has qualified two quota spots in women’s skeet, men’s skeet and men’s double trap. In addition to being the final event in the Olympic points system, the world championships also mark the final opportunity for countries to secure remaining quota spots, which the U.S. will look to do in men’s and women’s trap.
Glenn Eller and Derek Haldeman will be shooting for the 30-point Olympic qualifying threshold in double trap at the world championships. Haldeman needs to finish in the top four and ahead of Eller to secure an outright selection. Eller must place in the top six and ahead of Haldeman.
In women’s trap, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein has secured the U.S. one of two available quota spots. Kayle Browning and Kimberley Bowers are both contenders to lock up the second quota spot for Team USA. If the second quota is secured at the world championships, Cogdell-Unrein leads the way in the points system with 35 points. Browning is also in contention with 10 points, needing a win in Italy (worth 25 points) to tie Cogdell-Unrein, calling for a shoot-off at a to-be-determined date and location.
The world championships, which began Thursday and run through Sunday, are the final opportunity for the U.S. to earn a country quota in men’s trap – or face a second straight Olympics without an entrant in that event. America’s hopes rest with Jake Wallace, Myles Walker and Anthony Matarese.
In men’s skeet, two-time Olympic champion Vincent Hancock has mathematically secured his right to fill Team USA’s second quota spot in the event, with 44 points going into the world championships.
But it is the Rhode-Connor-Craft showdown in women’s skeet that is getting all the attention. With a lead of three points over Connor and 10 over Rhode, Craft has the edge for the first berth. She needs only to finish higher than Connor and Rhode to earn the slot. Connor gets the nod if she finishes in the top six and the others fail to do the same. Rhode needs a top-four finish and for the others to place outside the top six. The two remaining shooters will be among those battling for the second spot in the two-part Olympic Trials in October and May, which is also when all remaining shotgun quota spots will be filled.
“I know I’m ahead, but I don’t know how many points Caitlin or Kim have,” Craft said. “I don’t even keep track because it doesn’t have anything to do with me or my game.”
It goes without saying that all eyes will be fastened on Rhode, who automatically becomes the favorite in every match.
She might be getting older, but her opponents have always found it difficult to top her, despite her setbacks: a torn rotator cuff after the 1996 Games, the elimination of the double trap from the Olympic program after the 2004 Games and a breast cancer scare following the 2008 Games.
“She’s been shooting longer than I’ve been alive,” Craft said. “Of course, I respect her for everything she’s done – she is an amazing athlete, no doubt.
“But on the field she is just another shooter. I feel I can beat her on any given day.”
Until this season, Craft had never won a world cup medal; last summer she was so discouraged over her progress that she withdrew from competition for several months. Now she has a silver and a bronze. Connor won her first world cup medal in 2009, only to see Rhode all but guaranteed of the 2012 Olympic slot.
Then the rules changed.
“I was literally (jumping up and down),” Craft said of the day she learned two Olympic berths would be available in 2016. “It was a huge opportunity.”
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.