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Meet Ms. Olympia

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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.

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.

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.

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