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Meet Ms. Olympia


by Frank Miniter

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.

“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.

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