An American has medaled a record six straight Olympics, and here's why few know her

MLB columnist
Kim Rhode won a medal for the sixth straight Olympics. (Reuters)
Kim Rhode won a medal for the sixth straight Olympics. (Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Kim Rhode won a bronze medal at the Rio Games on Friday. It marked the sixth consecutive Olympics in which she medaled, tying a record. This went generally unnoticed because Rhode shoots a gun for a living.

Life is confusing for Rhode these days. She feels under attack. Were she involved in any other Olympic sports, she would be seen as a wonderful spokesperson. She is a mother and a wife. She plays “Pokemon Go” and Clash of Clans. She revels in nature. She is like tens of millions of women around the United States, except every four years, since she was 16, she has stood atop an Olympic podium.

Instead, because she wields a shotgun, speaks out against gun control and says her 3-year-old son, Carter, is a Life Member of the National Rifle Association, Rhode – a three-time Olympic gold medalist with a silver and two bronzes to boot – is among the most polarizing athletes in Rio, drawing attention from worldwide media fascinated by the United States’ gun culture and serving as one of the most visible defenders of the Second Amendment.

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Beyond the standard NRA talking points, the 37-year-old Rhode’s fear about gun laws stretches to her sport. She lives in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed six bills that tighten everything from gun ownership to non-owner gun usage to ammunition purchases. Handguns can be lent only to family members and only six times a year and other guns if “occasional and without regularity.” Large-capacity magazines will be banned, even for competitive shooters.

“They are, in a way, killing my sport, making it more difficult for people to start my sport and try it,” Rhode said. “If I’m going out to coach Boy Scouts or teach somebody how to shoot and I can’t loan them a gun or shell, it becomes very challenging to get new people into the sport.”

Kim Rhode discharges shells from her shotgun duing woman’s skeet qualifications. (Reuters)
Kim Rhode discharges shells from her shotgun duing woman’s skeet qualifications. (Reuters)

The skeet shooting competition Friday carried the intrigue and tension of any great Olympic event. After finishing second in the qualifying round and moving onto the semifinals, Rhode hit 14 of 16 targets – skeet competitions throw two at a time, and the object is to hit each with a shotgun blast – and found herself in a three-way tie with teammate Morgan Craft and Wei Mang of China. Rhode and Wei advanced to the bronze-medal match when Craft missed a target in the shoot-off.

It wasn’t Rhode’s last of the day. She and Wei each went 15 for 16. Then Rhode, shooting first, missed one of two targets. Her medal streak looked all but lost until Wei, the top qualifier earlier in the day, watched a pigeon fall to the ground without the pink puff of dust that kicks up when it shatters. Rhode hit her next six shots, Wei missed her final one and Italian luger Armin Zoeggeler no longer was the only Olympian to medal six straight times.

“Standing up there on that podium – it’s addicting,” Rhode said. “It has me coming back again and again. I think every emotion hits you at once. You want to run, scream, cry. And you just don’t know which one to do first. It doesn’t matter if it’s the gold, the silver, the bronze. It’s the journey.”

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Hers has taken her from teenage sensation to regular medalist to mom, and the next step for Rhode is becoming an advocate. She is decidedly pro-Donald Trump and said she wants to get more political. Talking about her toddler being a member of the NRA and Safari Club International, a big game-hunting organization, won’t lessen the outrage on one side and support on the other.

“My son will become a shooter and will become an outdoorsman,” Rhode said. “I have every intention of teaching his kids some day.”

Shooting, she said, gives children a sense of discipline and responsibility and focus. And for Rhode, it emboldens her connection with her family. One family member on her father’s side, she said, fought for Custer at Little Big Horn. He hunted and provided food for Union troops. It’s a way of life passed down to Rhode. It’s also, to so many tired of gun violence in the United States, terribly anachronistic.

Gun massacres around the country already have rendered general sponsorship nonexistent in shooting sports. Nike used to sponsor Rhode. Not anymore. She subsists on gun and ammunition manufacturers, hoping to continue being able to make a living with a gun for the foreseeable future. She wants to break Zoeggeler’s record in 2020 and perhaps keep shooting after that. Seeing as 72-year-old Oscar Swahn won Olympic silver in shooting nearly 100 years ago, Rhode could be to Olympic medal streaks what Michael Phelps is to overall medal count.

She understands, or at least she tries to. The gun debate is going nowhere, and whatever direction it moves, the outcry will be fierce. Right there in the middle will be Kim Rhode, six-time medalist, one of the best Olympians the United States has known – and still doesn’t know.

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