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Kim Rhode, with record 7th Olympics in sight, is world’s best shooter since Rio

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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 EllerMatthew 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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Three questions with Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea before the U.S. Championships

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2016 U.S. national champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea changed coaches to kick off the new season. Now under Dalilah Sappenfield in Colorado Springs, the oft-injured team said they’re healthier than ever heading into the U.S. Championships this weekend in Detroit.

The 2018 Four Continents Champions got off to a “slow start” this year, with a seventh place finish a silver medal on the Challenger Series. On the Grand Prix series, though, they had a fifth place finish in Japan and a silver medal-performance in France. It was their first-ever Grand Prix medal. They told reporters on a media teleconference ahead of nationals that both of their Grand Prix performances “showed growth.” Since then, they’ve spent time drilling on their programs.

Here’s what we learned from their teleconference:

1. They’ve made huge strides from where they are today compared to where they were this time before nationals a year ago.

Tarah Kayne: “There’s a huge difference for me specifically mentally and physically. Last year I was coming off of a right knee surgery where I had my patella tendon reconstructed. For nationals, we were just getting started back into competitive shape. We had maybe a handful of free skate run-throughs under our belts going into nationals. I was just starting to get comfortable doing throws again. We were purposefully trying to make our throws smaller to cut back the impact on my right knee, and to make it as safe as possible.”

“Now this season, I am feeling so much healthier and stronger. We’re making our throws bigger again! Which is a great feeling for me to feel comfortable and to be in that place physically. And also mentally to feel safe doing that. A huge part of that has been being at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and training under Dalilah who I find to be very empowering.”

Danny O’Shea: “We’re healthy. That’s been the goal for a very long time. We have been elusive for a lot of our career so far. Feeling healthy going into nationals is a very comforting place to be in. Not having to scramble, rely purely on mental toughness to overcome what may be a lack of physical training is a very nice place to be in.

2. They feel like they got a fresh start under their new coach.

TK: “With Dalilah, we started from scratch. We just came to her and let her mold us. Whatever she wanted us to do, we did. We didn’t question things. We didn’t say, ‘that’s not how we do things, how we’re used to.’ We just let her change whatever she wanted to change because we didn’t want to get the same results we have always gotten. We wanted to improve. We wanted to be bigger; we wanted to be better; we wanted to be faster.”

DO: “When you’re with a coach for seven years as a team, things are second-nature. There’s been definite differences in what we’ve been doing throughout the year. Some took some getting used to. Some were very comfortable right off the bat. Overall, it’s been a positive for us and that we’re in a very good place physically right now, which is helping us be able to train hard and keep pushing throughout the year.”

3. Kayne and O’Shea don’t want anyone else to miss out on the Olympics (like they did, as 2018 Olympic alternates) or the world championships. And with only one U.S. pair spot at Worlds this year, they know what’s at stake.

DO: “It’s on our minds.”

TK: “It’s a hard job. It’s a hard position to be in. I wish I wasn’t in this position. I would love to be walking into this with three spots and have a little bit of wiggle room… it’s a job. I have to go and do my job at nationals to get to Worlds. And then I have to do my job at Worlds to make sure no one else is in this position again… We’re capable at this place and time to accomplish that goal for ourselves and for the United States.”

DO: “We have always gone into nationals trying to skate our best, but this year we know we have to go and do that and we have to win. You wanna go into every competition to try and be your best, but with the way things are, we’re going in to win nationals and make that world team again, and go to Worlds and start turning this around. We don’t want to have one spot for Worlds or one spot for the Olympics any longer.”

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As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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U.S. junior champions crowned in ladies’ and men’s events

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Gabriella Izzo is the newest junior ladies’ national champion, crowned this week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Junior ladies’ national champions of the past include eventual Olympians Mirai Nagasu, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Bradie Tennell.

Izzo had a commanding lead after the short program, with 60.97 points, where she pulled off her first-ever triple Lutz, triple loop combination in competition. (However, it was deemed under-rotated.) Regardless, her 111.45 points in the free skate combined for 172.42 points and the gold medal.

Audrey Shin, who actually won the free skate by just over a point, earned the silver medal with 165.61 points. Emilia Murdock took home the bronze with 154.48 points.

On the junior men’s side, Ryan Dunk rebounded from second after the short program to win the event. His 132.85-point free skate was enough to crack the 200-point overall score, the only man in the field to do so, and win the gold.

Men’s junior champions include eventual world champion Nathan Chen (twice) as well as Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

Dinh Tran finished second with 196.03 points after a fourth-place short program. Joonsoo Kim, who lead after the short program on Tuesday, ended up with the bronze medal with 187.95 points.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream each junior competition and replays will also be available on-demand. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

The junior rhythm dance took place earlier Wednesday. Siblings Caroline and Gordon Green lead the field with 70.82 points, while Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are second with 65.92 points. The brother-sister team of Oona and Gage Brown are in third with 63.34 heading into Friday’s junior free dance.

Also Wednesday, Laiken Lockley and Keenan Prochnow took the lead in the junior pairs’ short program. The junior pairs’ free skate is Thursday. Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy are second, followed by Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard in third.

MORE: Full streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the junior and senior U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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