STORY BY CRAIG HODGKINS PHOTOS BY THE RHODE FAMILYIf there is such a thing as “like at ﬁrst sight,” then Kim Rhode had me at “Hi.”
From the ﬁrst moments of our wide-ranging conversation (I can’t in good conscience call it an interview) at the Redlands Shooting Park, one of three Southern California ranges she uses for her daily training sessions, I felt like a member of the family.
Perhaps that feeling was enhanced because her mom, Sharon, had set up the meeting, and her dad, Richard, made our group a threesome, but the primary reason was her friendly demeanor and disarming personality.
Early on, we discovered that we were born in the same Southern California hospital, and that we both collect rare ﬁrst-edition children’s books. But just when I was starting to think we had a whole lot in common, I remembered that she is the one with six Olympic shooting medals.
RHODE WON HER FIRST WORLD skeet championship when she was 13, but her shooting passion – and skill – manifested itself long before that. Like many people, she got into shooting and hunting because of her family’s involvement. One year, the Rhode clan traveled to Yuma, Ariz., in early September to bag some birds.
“I was seven or eight years old,” Kim said, “and the gun was taller than me. I was standing oﬀ from my parents, but not too far … they still had control. A game warden came up, and he asked, ‘Who shot your birds for you?’ And I was like ‘I did.’ But he insisted, ‘No, no, honey. No one’s going to get in trouble. You can tell me. Who shot your birds for you?’ “No, really,’ I insisted. ‘I really shot these birds.’ And while I was in the midst of arguing with this Game and Fish guy, my dad yells ‘Over you!’ I turned around, took two shots and dropped two birds. The game warden said, ‘Have a nice day,’ and walked oﬀ.”
Competitions were the next logical step for the precocious pre-teen. When Rhode was 13, she entered a match where the winner would earn the opportunity to visit the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I competed in trap,” she said, “which was something I’d never done before, and I won. I was ecstatic, but after I got home I got a phone call that I wouldn’t be going because I was too young. They sent the runner-up instead.”
Later, the same venue held the world shoot in skeet. “I went and won the Open Women’s in skeet. The Olympic coach happened to be there, and he said ‘We’ll make an exception for you, if your mother will come with you and stay in the dorms.’”
It was her ﬁrst visit to an Olympic facility, but not her last. Three years later, she joined the Olympic team.
“I was 16 when I ﬁrst went to the Olympics, and I was really nervous. You go through a physical, and one of the big things they do is a gender test. The guys on my team were razzing me like crazy, and I was just terriﬁed (beforehand). I’m thinking the worst things possible, like, ‘What is a gender test?’ And I get in there, and the doctor says, ‘Open your mouth and let me scrape the inside of your cheek.’ All they did was take my DNA to check it. But I didn’t know that.”
With her gender oﬃcially conﬁrmed, Rhode went on to win the ﬁrst of her six Olympic medals, a gold in double trap.
“I remember after I won, I didn’t know what to do with the medal. And I don’t think I realized what it was I had done until I got home. When I started giving speeches and people were crying, I saw what an impact (the win) had been to other people and other families. It’s part of the reason why I always take the time to talk to people and to sign
every autograph. I realize what a diﬀerence it can make for a child or for a family.”
HER OWN FAMILY TREE BOASTS of two U.S. Presidents (John and John Quincy Adams), Morse code inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, and the lesser-known but fascinating George Ludwig Rhode, her great-great-grandfather on her father’s side, who served under General H.H. Sibley as one of 25 handpicked men chosen to attempt to rescue General George Armstrong Custer prior to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Although his troops were unsuccessful, Rhode fought his way through skirmish after skirmish following the main battle, and survived to keep his branch of the family tree intact.
Her grandfather and other relatives were born in Montana. A few years before the Great Depression, one member of the family developed rheumatoid arthritis, so the family sold their cattle ranch, bought new cars, loaded them up “like something out of the Beverly Hillbillies” and headed oﬀ south.
On their way through Wyoming, as the story goes, they got stopped at Yellowstone, where rangers at the main gate refused to let them pass if they didn’t plug their guns. These men from Montana were all working cowboys, and no one was going to take their guns, so instead of consenting to the rangers’ demands, they pitched their tents, camped out near the park gates and began to live oﬀ of the land.
About six months later, they had shot so many elk, deer and buﬀalo that the game wardens ﬁnally oﬀered to escort them through the park with all their guns fully loaded. When they reached the other side, they kept going until they got to California.
The Rhode clan’s determined self-reliance and the refusal to give up their guns is something that Kim remains passionate about even today.
“When you go back in history and look at where we came from,” she said, “kids were raised with respect and responsibility and discipline and focus, and shooting has taught me a lot about that. In today’s society, everybody is so reliant on other things or other people. Kids are losing the old-time values of pride in your work and your work ethic. When I talk to kids, I talk about never giving up. A sport isn’t always about winning. It’s what you do when you don’t win, how you pick yourself up and keep going.”
“I’ve been a member of (Safari Club International) since I was 10 years old, the year I went on my ﬁrst safari. SCI does a lot for animal conservation as well as hunting, but it’s really about the heritage and being able to pass it on to our kids. It’s the same thing with the (National Riﬂe Association). It’s a
great organization, ﬁghting for the Second Amendment and ensuring that those rights and that heritage will be there for our kids and our kid’s kids.”
Despite some obvious cultural shifts, Rhode remains upbeat about the future, one that she hopes will include her participation in additional Olympic games.
“I’m deﬁnitely going to go for the next couple Olympics, especially 2020. And if Los Angeles gets the bid in 2024, it would be amazing to have my family and friends there cheering me on, being able to see that you can achieve great things no matter where you come from.”
But even if she never participates in another Olympics, Rhode’s place in the record books is secure. As the only summer participant to ever medal in six diﬀerent games, she stands alone on that podium, a fact she acknowledges with a shrug.
“I never really thought of it as me being the best, and I never really grasped the fact that I was ‘number one in the world’ or anything like that. For me, it was just a competition; it was just for fun. I did the best I could, and it was going to be what it was going to be.”
And although her Olympic memories often blend together, that doesn’t lessen her joy.
“I’ve loved it,” she said. “I love competing head to head, I love being in that moment, I love the travel, the places, the people. (Between events) we’d go see the Coliseum or historical places in the world like the pyramids. We had camel races across the dessert.”
“I always say, ‘Nobody remembers what your score was.’ For me it was the camel races and the relationships and the fun times that made it what it is.”
BUT IN ORDER TO KEEP THE FUN times coming, an Olympic athlete needs to become self-sustaining, something that Rhode learned early on.
“When I was young and wasn’t allowed to visit the Olympic Training Center, I had to ﬁnd those resources locally, and that’s when it started with the sponsorships.”
Today, she enjoys sponsorships from Winchester ammunition Beretta, SCI and others. Another sponsor has joined Team Rhode more recently, and it was due to a well-publicized theft. In September of 2008, Rhode’s long-time competition shotgun was stolen from her truck.
“I was returning from doing a public service announcement,” she recalled, “and I decided to stop and get something to eat with my mom and do some shopping. I was in a store, and my mom came running back, ‘It’s gone, it’s gone!’ I remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach, and when the security people came out, to them it was no big deal. They were saying ‘Let’s sweep up the glass.’ And I said, ‘What are you doing? That’s evidence!’”
“It was from that situation that I sought out Truck Vault, because it was exactly what I needed. I always say it’s the trunk that I don’t have in my truck. But more important is the peace of mind it brings, and what Truck Vault meant to me at that point was just immense. I don’t ever want to feel that way again.”
When she’s not breaking targets, Rhode works hard at giving back to the sport she loves. That takes several forms, including speaking to a wide variety of groups and venues, from the Republican National Convention to the local Rotary Club. It is something she feels called to do, and for a very speciﬁc reason.
“After I’d won a medal at the 2008 Olympics, I ﬁgured the questions were going to be, ‘What is it like standing on the podium representing your country?’ But instead it was, ‘Can you comment on these tragedies that have occurred?’ It was then that I realized I need to do more, to voice more of the positives of shooting, because all you really hear are the negatives. You don’t hear about the high schools that have shooting teams, or the programs like Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCTP) that have kids working as a team to earn bonds for their education and their future. There are so many wonderful things about the shooting and outdoor sports that you just don’t hear on a day-to-day basis. The reality is we try to reach out to everybody. Our sport is truly just a sport, no diﬀerent than any of the others. It just so happens that we shoot clay targets with a shotgun.”
If anybody can help keep the conversation currently swirling around Second Amendment rights moving forward in a civil tone, it’s Rhode. After all, this is a woman who built a 1965 AC Shelby Cobra, by hand, turning every bolt one by one … when she was in high school. She’s both patient and persistent, and everything she does communicates a charmingly tenacious philosophy of “Go big or go home.” It’s a trait she inherited from her father.
“My dad never did anything small,” she said. “When he got into something, he really got into
something. And I got that from him.”
And when the two get together on a project, things tend to take on a life of their own. One recent endeavor may serve as the best example of the Rhode raison d’etre.
“In my city,” she said, “they have a competition for the best decorated house for Christmas or Halloween. I thought, I’ve got all the lights, but it would be amazing if we could make the ghosts or Santa Claus ﬂy around our yard. So I took sewing machine motors and ﬁshing line and made things ﬂy around. I showed my dad and he said, ‘That’s too small.’ So the next thing I know, we’ve got 5- or 6-inch pipes that go up 15 feet that have a motorcycle wheel attached and engineered with motion sensors with a pulley system. We had to level the yard and pour concrete and set these suckers. I could probably ﬂy on it myself and scare little kids that come up to the door. And I had to get the ‘light-o-rama’ to top it oﬀ so the lights would (blink) to the music. When we went into the junkyard to ask them for the motorcycle wheels they asked, ‘What are you going to do with these again?’”
Her wide circle of friends and family has grown to include her husband Mike Harryman and their son Carter, whom she was pregnant with during the 2012 London games. And while her life may be complex, her approach is simple.
“I like to have fun,” she said, “and shooting is still fun for me. You have to keep it that way. But training is not fun. The fun part is the travel, the places, the people, the competition… those are the fun things. But it all comes down to what you want to do in life, and for me, I wanted to see the world, and be able to enjoy the outdoors. I love hiking. I like camping. I love hunting. I love ﬁshing. I love spending the time with my parents and my family. Those were things that were important to me, and shooting allowed me to do all those.” ASJ