As Kim Rhode prepares to turn 40 next year, it looks like she’s peaking as a shooter.
“Probably, yeah,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about being a shooter is you don’t really have a shelf life. You can do this for a long time.”
Rhode, who earned an individual medal in a record-tying sixth straight Olympics in Rio, is two years from likely becoming the second American to compete in seven Olympics after equestrian J. Michael Plumb.
One of the biggest competitions ahead of Tokyo 2020 is the world championships that start this weekend in South Korea. The U.S. roster includes fellow Olympic champions Glenn Eller, Matthew Emmons and Vincent Hancock.
Rhode’s event — the skeet — is Sept. 10 and 11.
She is the overwhelming favorite. That might be a surprise if you followed her between the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
Rhode endured obstacle after obstacle in the last cycle. Most notably, her own health.
She gave birth to her first child, son Carter, on May 13, 2013, two and a half weeks overdue.
She had her gall bladder removed six weeks later and made three more hospital visits for multiple complications. A doctor instructed her not to lift anything greater than five pounds after the surgery. She couldn’t hold Carter (eight pounds) or her gun (nine) for several weeks.
Rhode’s bones had separated four months into her pregnancy and failed to heal properly after she gave birth, inhibiting her ability to walk. She wasn’t approved to cover more than one block until two months before the Rio Games.
Then consider what Rhode did in Brazil.
She needed a tie-breaking shoot-off just to reach the bronze-medal match to keep her Olympic medal streak alive. The win-or-nothing bronze final was also tied after regulation, requiring another sudden-death shoot-off that went four rounds before Rhode prevailed.
“I always say the bronze is tough, the gold is easy,” Rhode said afterward, fighting tears in interviews while reflecting on the Olympic cycle.
At 37, Rhode was the oldest U.S. shooting medalist since 2004.
But she was determined to go for a record-breaking seventh medal in Tokyo 2020. When Los Angeles was awarded the 2028 Olympics, the California native decided she would compete through what would be a ninth Olympics, one shy of the record for participations. She’s not counting out 2032, either.
“I really don’t have an end in sight,” she said by phone Wednesday, with men in their 70s and 80s shooting at a nearby range. “There’s just no reason to quit.”
Many could have doubted such an aspiration three or four years ago.
Not that it’s preposterous. The oldest Olympic medalist, gold medalist and participant in any sport (outside art competitions) was a shooter — Swede Oscar Swahn, who was a 72-year-old medalist at the 1920 Antwerp Games.
Rhode, familiar with Swahn, has been on the hottest streak of her international career since that Rio bronze.
She won six of her eight World Cup starts.
She set world records for qualifying (122 out of 125 targets) and finals (58 out of 60) since the current format debuted after Rio. Her “ultimate dream” is perfect shooting in a record-eligible competition. Rhode has come close, hitting 99 out of 100 at the London Olympics.
In 2017, Rhode finished fourth at the world championships yet was still named world female shooter of the year (for the first time) across all events via her World Cup dominance. She is currently world-ranked No. 1 in the skeet by the greatest ranking-points margin of any Olympic men’s or women’s event.
“Before the last Olympics, I was very ill and had my challenges,” Rhode said. “I did a lot of work to try and overcome them. All the hard work, I think you’re seeing it pay off. … It’s getting easier for me, as I think you can see by my performance.
“Having a baby changes you. It took a lot out of me. It’s taken a lot to get back. I’m still not there, but I’m getting better.”
For all of Rhode’s Olympic fortunes, she equates the world championships with bad luck. Rhode last earned a world champs medal in 2011. Her only world title was in 2010.
At 1997 Worlds in Lima, a teenage Rhode fell and cracked the back of her head open, requiring five staples. She still competed and placed ninth in the double trap.
In 2001 in Cairo, Rhode was seventh, competing with strep throat and laryngitis. “You couldn’t fit a straw in the back of my throat,” she said.
In 2014, she was seventh in the skeet, competing while her husband was hospitalized with diverticulitis in California. This time, Rhode’s father is undergoing shoulder surgery while she’s in South Korea.
Rhode is feeling so strong with her shooting that she is determined to compete in three events in Tokyo — her trademark skeet, trap and the new mixed-gender team trap event.
Rhode’s only previous trap competition on the top international level was at the 2012 Olympics, where she finished ninth. Rhode, focused on the skeet, only competed in the second event because she happened to have the minimum qualifying score and there was an open U.S. spot.
“I never put the [trap] practice time in that I put in now,” Rhode said. She estimated shooting 10 total rounds of trap leading up to London 2012 contrasted with up to 1,000 rounds of skeet per day.
Rhode said she recently qualified for the national team in second place in trap. She plans to compete it at the World Cup level after these world championships.
It’s in part to help the U.S. qualify Olympic spots, since the nation is not as deep in trap as it is in skeet. Three different U.S. women won the last three world titles in skeet, and none of them are on the 2018 World Championships team.
“Taking on more events is something I’ve never done or even thought [about],” Rhode said.
In addition to the perfect score, Rhode would like to carry the U.S. flag at an Olympic Opening or Closing Ceremony.
She believes she’s come in second place in voting done by fellow Team USA athletes at least twice in her first five Olympics. It’s hard to argue the choices at her sixth Olympics in Rio — Michael Phelps for the Opening and Simone Biles for the Closing.
Rhode reflects on these last two years and the four years before that. Such thinking brought tears in Rio. Now?
“A night and day difference,” she said.
NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.
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