LONDON – Contrary to popular belief at these London Olympics, Kim Rhode did not fire a shot heard ’round the world Sunday. She fired 99.
America’s Annie Oakley from Monrovia, Calif., who entered Sunday’s women’s skeet competition amid as much attention on a U.S. shooter as there has been since Roy Rogers, demolished the field. Watching her perform at the Royal Artillery Barracks felt a little like the days when Tiger Woods got ahead in a golf tournament and the other guys became puddles around him.
Rhode had come to these Olympics as a prominent member of the pre-show hype. That’s not the norm for a shooter. But when you start winning medals as a 16-year-old at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and have won at least one in every ensuing Games, even NBC takes notice.
A description of the record she was pursuing had been typed and broadcast and echoed thousands of times in the run-up to London. A medal for Rhode, any medal, would make her the first U.S. Olympic athlete to win at least one in an individual sport in five consecutive Games. She had won gold in Atlanta, Athens and now here, to go with bronze in Sydney and silver in Beijing.
That’s impressive, but if you had watched Rhode shoot over the years, what happened Sunday was pretty much a given. She has eyes that can spot a squirrel in a tree half a mile away. She doesn’t ruffle, doesn’t flinch, doesn’t ever, for lack of a better term, take her eyes off the target.
“I’ve been like this since I was a kid,” she said afterward. “I can remember, standing in front of a TV set, never even seeing people walking in front of me, just locked on the movie I was watching.”
Those pro golfers who have such trouble closing the deal on Sundays ought to hire her for anti-choke lessons.
Under something considered the ultimate pressure, she broke the first 50 targets during the preliminaries and broke the next six in the semifinals before missing. Then she ran off the next 43, including all 25 in the pressure-packed final.
Asked about the miss, she didn’t blink.
“Station five,” she said. “Low house single. No reason. I just missed.”
The 74 of 75 was a world record and the 99 of 100 tied a world record, of which Rhode was one of the incumbent holders. She won by eight targets, or the equivalent of Usain Bolt winning the 100 meters by two seconds.
Under pressure, others droop. Rhode dazzles. She is becoming one of those certainties in life - death, taxes and Kim Rhode hitting clay targets.
When she hit the final target, the big scoreboard that looms over the shooters as they march from station to station showed a field of competitors with blanks for each miss scattered after their names. Only silver medalist Wei Ning of China had hung tough, with only two misses. Rhode’s scoreboard, like her ability with a gun, was flawless, all 25 squares filled.
While she waited for a shoot-off for the bronze medal, won by Danka Bartekova of Slovakia, she quietly wandered toward the spectator bleachers, where she met her father and coach, Richard. There was a hug and the perfect brief exchange of emotion.
“I told her I was proud of her,” Richard said, “and she said, ‘I love you, Dad.’ ’
Rhode is a fascination on many levels. Besides shooting as many as four flats a day – 250 rounds to a flat – she scuba dives, skis and collects old children’s books and vintage cars. She restores the cars.
“Just before I came here, I bought a 1928 Model A Roadster,” she said, adding that this one was mint enough for her to drive and not need to fix up, unlike her 13 others.
Her ability to remain calm while others tear their hair out was demonstrated in the hoops she jumped through just to get here. The airlines canceled her flight from LAX on two consecutive days; that was after her poodle ate her airline ticket.
“I know how that sounds,” she said, “but it really happened.”
Then her husband, Mike Harryman, lost his passport.
Even weather doesn’t shake her. She had to go through early rounds in intermittent drizzle, and said afterward, “My dad told me I might have to perform well sometime in rain. He was right.”
In the afternoon, for the 25-shot final, the clouds parted as if courting majesty.
Now, the only question remaining is how much longer Rhode, 33, would continue competing, a question answered clearly by Richard Rhode.
“The oldest Olympic medalist was a shooter, I think,” he said. “He won a medal when he was 72.”