* Originally appeared in America’s 1st Freedom magazine, December 2012.
While preparing to interview Kim Rhode (pronounced ROE-dee) after she won gold in skeet at the 2012 Olympics in London—her fifth Olympic medal in as many Olympics—I found all my questions boiled down to one. And I wasn’t so sure she could answer the question.
I’ve interviewed presidential candidates, congressmen, sports stars and CEOs of Fortune 500s. Preparing to interview them takes research into their victories and defeats, their goals, viewpoints and personal eccentricities. All of those types are accustomed to the press. They all have standard answers you try to make them go beyond, so you use a series of well-researched questions to find a way around, or through, their talking points.
But something is different about this particular Olympian. The ancient Greeks would have carved her in marble and set her statue next to gods and goddesses—not just because of her victories, but also in celebration of her steady dominance in a sport that requires champions to be so mentally healthy and unshakable that they don’t doubt themselves, not even in one shot in 100.
So there were no talking points here to navigate; instead, there was a challenge to find out how she developed and maintains her winning disposition. If she could answer that question, it’d be the greatest self-help advice ever articulated.
So I ask her.
She draws in a breath.
I’m waiting, hoping she can put her recipe for success into words that are comprehensible to those of us who haven’t been to Mount Olympus.
After a moment she answers slowly, measuring her words as she speaks.
“My grandfather taught me when I was a little girl that when you want something you go for it 100 percent,” she says. “Otherwise, leave it be. He illustrated his advice by taking me on hunts for black bear with hounds in my home state of California. Now, the prejudiced legislature here recently made pursuing bears with hounds illegal. They ignorantly think hunting bears behind hounds is easy. Obviously, none of those who voted that way know what they’re talking about, because if they’d ever tried it they’d know how physically grueling running a track really is. So we’ve lost this American pastime.
“This is too bad; hunting bears with hounds was something my family did every fall since I can remember,” she adds. “When those hounds go, they don’t stop until they’ve treed or bayed up a bear or they’ve lost the track. You have to stay with them. You have to listen to them. By the sound of their barks, they’ll tell you what’s going on. You have to be focused on them as well as on the terrain, the other hunters with you, the conditions and more. You can’t doubt your stamina or drive for a moment. You can’t stop and doubt yourself. There’s no time for that. You have to move positively forward with your eyes wide open.“My grandfather taught me when I was a little girl that when you want something you go for it 100 percent,” she says. “Otherwise, leave it be."
“This became a metaphor for my life. Once you set your sights on something, you have to be dogged about it.”
She pauses, and I want to unpack that profound answer. It opened the door to understanding her success. But before I can follow up, Rhode continues.
“This doesn’t mean you need to be an egomaniac or a narcissistic jerk,” she says. “You don’t have to blindly run over others to succeed. Actually, if you do that you’ll only harm yourself. You should instead be honest and helpful to others around you, just like my Grandpa was when we chased bears. This builds a positive spirit and lifts everyone, including yourself.
“Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last,” she adds. “When you’re really steady in your mind, you are good to yourself and to others. You’ll then perform better because you are good and generous. Being arrogant or selfish in competition, or life, will harm you and will impede your goals.”
Now I was even more intrigued. There is so much there in which to dig deeper.
But let’s pause a moment. First, we need a little background.
As this is being written, Kim is only 34 years old but has already taken just about every prize possible in competitive trap and skeet. She was born in Whittier, Calif. At the age of 10, she enrolled in the NRA’s Junior Shooting Program. She became a “pro-marksman” with her .22 rifle.
During those years, Kim also began hunting with her family and learned to shoot a shotgun. She enjoyed it so much that she began signing up for club shoots. Soon she moved on to regional shoots.
At first her family funded her passion, but along the way she got financial and technical support from Winchester Ammunition and Perazzi shotguns. They helped Kim find reliable, low-recoil shells and a custom-fit shotgun.
In 1995 she earned the Distinguished Shooter Medal from the U.S. Army at the World Championships in Cyprus. In 1996, at only 17 years of age, she won gold in double trap at the Atlanta Olympics. In 2002, Kim was named USA Shooting’s Female Athlete of the Year, an honor she has received seven times since.
After she made the 1996 Olympic team, she began getting a lot of press. Before those Games, she appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. After she won the gold, she says, Leno sent her a dozen roses. In 1996, she was even named one of the Top 10 Sports Phenoms by Time magazine.
She was such a natural representative of the shooting sports that she was soon recruited to be a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s campaigns for outdoor safety and conservation. She also made frequent appearances for national organizations to help raise money for charities, and she co-hosted the Outdoor Channel’s TV program Step Outside.
Of course, most of this success came from her decisive domination in double trap. Yet her success was almost derailed in Olympic gender politics. The International Olympic Committee added double trap in 1996 as a sport for women. In fact, it was the only shotgun sport for women at the time because the International Olympic Committee had eliminated women’s single trap and skeet.
When a woman from China named Zhang Shan won the gold in skeet at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the committee made changes to women’s participation in the shotgun sports. Shan was the first woman to earn an Olympic gold in mixed competition. Seemingly in response, the International Olympic Committee eliminated women from the competition and instituted a “men-only” rule for the shotgun competitions.
As this is being written, Kim is only 34 years old but has already taken just about every prize possible in competitive trap and skeet.After protests, the International Olympic Committee opened skeet and trap to women again, but kept women separate and gave them fewer targets than the men—this when the “weaker sex” had proven they could compete. So when Kim made her debut in 1996, she says, “The scores were engineered so that women shot 120 targets while men shot 150. In this way the men’s and women’s scores couldn’t be compared.”
As noted, she won gold at the 1996 Olympics in double trap. At the 2000 Olympics, Kim won the bronze in double trap. At the 2004 Olympics, she won gold again in double trap. But then, after the 2004 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee eliminated double trap.
Kim had to either retire from Olympic competition or learn a new shotgun discipline. She wasn’t ready to retire, so she turned all of her attention to skeet, winning silver at the 2008 Olympics and gold at the 2012 Olympics. Just like that, she changed shooting disciplines and won silver, then gold!
Okay, not just like that.
Kim is known as one of the hardest-working athletes in the world. She shoots 500-1,000 shells per day, six days per week. And that’s just the shooting.
“Look, just because someone can high jump doesn’t mean they can long jump,” Rhode says. “Double trap and skeet are totally different. It was hard.”
To explain, she goes back to that hound-hunting metaphor.
“I didn’t dwell on the odd decisions from the International Olympic Committee,” she says. “I focused on being the best at skeet. This not only meant using a different shotgun and an entirely different technique, but it also meant I had to leave the circle of friends and competitors I’d spent my career with. It wasn’t easy.”
She practiced skeet by diligently shooting birds on each station until she didn’t miss. If she missed, she didn’t continue on to the next station. She’d stay at that station until she could hit it every time. For example, at station one, she’d shoot 25 high, 25 low and 25 doubles. If she missed once, she’d start over.
But though she was focused on mastering skeet—again back to her metaphor—she continued to positively help others around her. She didn’t just hide at the range. To her that wouldn’t have been mentally healthy.
She continued to help causes that benefited women shooters and young people.
“We need more women and youth involved in our sports,” she says. “We definitely want to see our sport grow, and for it to continue to grow we need to reach outside the box. This is why I do so much with these groups.”
She says women shouldn’t think of themselves as being any different from a guy at the range. Strength doesn’t matter in the shooting sports, so women should go out with the attitude that they can beat the guys.
This, however, doesn’t mean women have to be like guys, Rhode says.
“Don’t do that,” she says. “Wear the pink vest, do your hair and carry the cute bags. Or don’t. You can either be the girlie girl or the tomboy. It doesn’t matter. Just have fun and learn.”
Kim also works to benefit the Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCTP). She supports the Kids & Clays Foundation, which hosts sporting clays tournaments to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House.
Kim is also active politically. She joined several past Olympic medalists in support of the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, at the final night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Okay, that’s Kim’s impressive résumé and the dedication to her causes. But don’t get the impression that she’s full of herself. The title of her blog is “just a girl shooting guns and stuff.”
That’s who she is. She collects children’s books and old autos. She has an AC Cobra she built with her father from a kit. She says she likes to hunt big game with her friends and family because when they go for upland bird she’s always supposed to be the one who shoots last. They expect her to make those 40-plus-yard passing shots on quail after others have missed with both barrels. So she finds big game more relaxing.
She’s one of those people who can’t be kept down. I found she’s really tenacious and bubbly—determined and tough, but also having a heck of time. She concentrates on the good in herself and others, and seems to parry away bad thoughts and happenings with her infectious positive spirit.
This positive attitude certainly is fundamental to her recipe for success. She’s all loaded with competitive determination, but at peace with the entire thing, too—it seems that five Olympics will either do that or they’ll destroy you.Strength doesn’t matter in the shooting sports, so women should go out with the attitude that they can beat the guys.
But it isn’t even just all the competitions. Most would crack under the constant strain of all that shooting, all that time spent trying to be mentally perfect. As that’s what shooting at that level is.
“Yup, it’s 98 percent mental once you’ve developed the skills and your body is in shape to hoist the 9-pound shotgun over and over again without even thinking about it,” she says.
Even when the Perazzi she used to win four Olympic medals was stolen from her pickup truck, Kim stayed positive. This makes me think it wasn’t just good police work, but also good karma that led to her shotgun being found in January 2009 and returned to her.
So to better understand her winning attitude, I ask, “Kim, you’re saying to be a great athlete, or great at anything, you can’t just be a great athlete. You have to carry that same honest and hardworking disposition to everything you do?”
“Exactly,” she says. “If you want to be good at anything, you can’t just be one way and then turn it off. You have to carry that goodness, that winning attitude, to everything you do. It’s a way of living, an openhearted, positive attitude that pervades everything.
“If you try to only be that hardworking and pure spirit on the skeet range, and then act differently when you’re doing other things, one mindset will infect the other,” she adds. “It’s really much easier to be successful when you’re a good person, when you help everyone around you, as that clears your mind and lets you concentrate on what matters with a smile on your face.
“Look, when I’m standing on the line I’m singing a song in my head,” she continues. “I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my gosh this is my last bird,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, someone is ahead of me. I can’t miss or I’ll be behind.’ Instead, I’m singing some song, and that helps me with the pressure. I don’t feel any animosity or negative thoughts from anyone because I haven’t treated them that way.”
She says that when she does lose, she keeps a similar attitude.
“Maybe it just wasn’t my time to shine,” she says. “Maybe it was someone else’s. Maybe their story was amazing. I can’t really say that I’m upset about it.”
That’s how Kim shot a perfect final round to win the gold in London. That’s how she became the first U.S. athlete in an individual sport to win five medals in five consecutive Olympics.
It’s how she lives her life. And it’s why she just might medal in another five Olympics.
Shooting Tips From Kim Rhode
Kim Rhode says she shoots 500-1,000 shells per day. She’ll often train by “drilling stations instead of shooting full rounds of skeet.” She recommends staying at one station and shooting it until you can hit the clay every time.
This builds muscle memory so shooting is “as natural as walking down the street,” she says. She thinks shooting rounds is a waste of time, because by the time you get all around and start again, you’ve forgotten what you did on the first one. She also believes in playing video games.
“They’re incredible for hand-eye coordination,” she says.