SAN GABRIEL, Calif.—Only two athletes in history have won medals in six consecutive Olympic Games.
Let me put this in perspective. There are about 13,000 Olympians, both summer and winter, during each four-year cycle. Since 1896, when the modern Games began, there have been 184,869 Olympians. So we’re talking about something that happens .001 percent of the time, which is just one click above…never.
The first athlete is Armin Zöggeler, a carabiniere from the Tyrolean Alps who has won two gold medals, one silver medal, and three bronzes during the 1994 through 2014 Winter Games. Armin’s nickname is “Ice Blood,” and you’ll see why if you watch his 2002 Salt Lake City luge run on YouTube. Luge is one of those sports that require constant daily training, constant care of your equipment, and such fine-tuning that the winners and losers are judged by thousandths of a second. It’s the most precisely timed sport in the world.
The Italians feel so strongly about Armin Zöggeler’s six-medals-in-six-Olympics feat that they’ve asked him to carry the national flag in opening and closing ceremonies three times. He was only able to accept twice because the other time would have interfered with his training runs.
The other six-in-six Olympian is a woman from Southern California. She should have been asked to carry the flag at the closing ceremonies in Rio. I have nothing but respect for Simone Biles and her five medals in gymnastics, but this sixth medal in six Olympic Games was not only a once-in-a-century achievement, it was also accomplished by a 37-year-old woman who was fighting injuries, who was struggling against decades of sexism in her sport’s Olympic organization, who has to train by herself while raising a 3-year-old son, and who had to learn a whole new sport halfway through her medal run because the Olympics decided only men could compete in her preferred event.
It would have been a phenomenal milestone simply for her to compete in six Olympics, but 130 other people have done that. Most of those six-time athletes came from smaller countries where it was easy to qualify. Not so for our American champion. She had to re-qualify each time for one of only two American slots in a sport where a single mistake can mean the difference between winning and fifth place, and then she had to earn her medals in the most competitive sport in the world—more nations compete in her event than in any other sport.
“Nobody was gonna go out of their way to congratulate Kimberly Rhode, because Kimberly Rhode carries a shotgun.”
Wouldn’t it have been fitting to follow the tradition established in many past Olympics in which a very senior athlete with a long record of victory is honored by being asked to carry the flag? That’s what was done at the opening ceremonies, when Michael Phelps carried the American flag to show respect for his earth-shattering records in swimming. That’s what Great Britain was doing when it had 36-year-old field-hockey captain Kate Richardson-Walsh carry the Union Jack. That was the idea behind 40-year-old volleyball player Sergey Tetyukhin hoisting the colors for Russia. That was why Germany handed its flag to Timo Boll, a 35-year-old table-tennis player.
But our champion didn’t even get a Bob Costas interview. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t wish a Bob Costas interview on anyone, but as the principal commentator on NBC, the network that paid $1.23 billion for broadcast rights, you would think Costas could take two minutes to say, “Hey, nice work. Six medals in six Olympics. The only woman to ever come close to that. Mind-blowing.” Instead you had to go to the NBC YouTube channel, or the NBC website, or catch the 15-second wrap-up at the end of the day. The BBC did a better job of covering the event and Great Britain didn’t even have anyone in the finals.
Bob Costas did, however, do an extended interview with Shaun White, another Southern Californian. Remember Shaun White, the snowboarder whose medal count in the 2014 Sochi Olympics was…zero? Yeah, that Shaun White. He was hanging around Rio for some reason and Bob apparently thought we would like that warm, fuzzy “reality-show reject” feeling you get when you see a self-promoting skater dude in board shorts.
Let’s face it, though, nobody was gonna go out of their way to congratulate Kimberly Rhode, because Kimberly Rhode carries a shotgun.
She carries, to be precise, a custom-made Beretta DT11, which is the second gun she’s competed with ever since “Old Faithful,” the competition Perazzi she used for 18 years, was stolen by crackheads who broke into a locked compartment of her pickup while she was inside a shopping center in Lake Elsinore. That was in 2008, and even though a dedicated Riverside County sheriff’s detective recovered the gun a year later, she had already started practicing with a new one and had made adjustments for the altered recoil and ammo load.
And while we’re on the subject of ammo load, Kimberly Rhode is so well-known in shooting circles that the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven, Conn., developed a special shotgun shell just for her, with a load that reduces the recoil on her overtaxed right shoulder. Here’s a wow fact for you: Kimberly is one of only four people pictured on a Winchester ammunition box since the founding of the company in 1855. The other three are company founder Oliver Winchester, Teddy Roosevelt, and John Wayne.
The reduced-recoil ammo was especially important after she had a difficult pregnancy in 2013 followed by gallbladder surgery and a series of medical complications that made her unable to walk for an extended period and only at 70 percent of her physical capacity going into the Rio Olympics. Since she’s one of the most bubbly, upbeat, optimistic people ever to wear an American uniform, she didn’t mention any of this in her press interviews. She simply bucked up and got it done.
And she did it the hard way. In the qualifying round of women’s skeet, she hit 72 out of 75 targets, just one behind Meng Wei of China.
In the semifinals, in which six women fire at 16 targets to determine who advances to the gold and bronze rounds, Chiara Cainero of Italy was a perfect 16-for-16 and her teammate Diana Bascosi missed once, meaning Italy locked up gold and silver. But three shooters had missed twice, resulting in a sudden-death shoot-off between Meng Wei, Kimberly Rhode, and the No. 1-ranked shooter in the world, 22-year-old Morgan Craft of Muncy Valley, Penn., which is an unincorporated dot on the map in the Pocono Mountains.
In a three-way sudden-death shoot-off for two positions, the first one to miss…loses. No pressure there.
Each woman shot three perfect rounds. On the fourth try, one of them lost concentration and broke—and it was Morgan Craft. Kimberly Rhode had fought her way into the bronze-medal match with a chance to make history.
The bronze-medal round always has a drama that the gold medal round lacks—because both competitors for gold are already assured of a medal. In a sport like skeet, where everything is about composure and steadiness, stakes like that can be overwhelming.
Adding to the pressure was that this had now become one of the most dramatic moments of any Olympics, since one shot by either woman could either establish a virtually unbreakable record or send Kim back to the ranks of Olympians who “almost did it.” On this day the bleachers were full.
On the first shot, nerves got the better of both women. Both of them missed. These are women who routinely hit 95 out of 100 moving targets, so it had to be the atmosphere.
And who could blame them? Shooting is a sport that normally occurs in quiet environments—duck blinds, gun ranges, open fields, places like Tillar, Ark., where the Olympic trials were held earlier this year. You’ve probably never been to Tillar (population: 222), but I have, and let’s just say that you won’t be accessing Uber on your smartphone while you’re out there. The closest thing to a tourist attraction around Tillar is the ruins of the World War II Japanese internment camp, famous because one of its inmates was George Takei, who would go on to play Commander Sulu on Star Trek. Tillar also has a mosquito population normally found only in Irwin Allen disaster movies. Nobody goes to Tillar to be a spectator.
But then there’s that one time, every four years, when a large crowd sits in the stands to watch the Olympics, roaring at every burst pigeon and audibly sighing when a clay is missed. It’s a big adjustment for a shooter, since your whole body has to be relaxed while you rest the gun on your hip, wait for the pigeon to be released, raise the gun to your shoulder, swing it horizontally in coordination with a four-inch disk traveling at 58.6 feet per second, lead it by several feet, and fire within the 1.7 seconds it remains in the kill zone. In the doubles part of the event, you have to fire twice in the kill zone at objects that are traveling in opposite directions.
In the Rhode/Wei shoot-off for the bronze medal, suspense ran so high that every single shot resulted in cheers from the crowd—until the final shot was fired. That would be the shot in the seventh round when Meng Wei missed.
Kimberly Rhode had been in situations like that before. Kimberly Rhode sings a song in her head while she’s shooting so that she won’t be too concentrated on the job at hand and her muscle memory will take over. Sometimes she tweets between rounds to take her mind off the competition. In the past, when she’s been in arenas where people were cheering, she has started to tear up and her friends and family have worried that the tears would cloud her vision and she wouldn’t be able to see the next pigeon. On this day, the tears didn’t flow freely until the final moment, when the crowd rose for a standing ovation. One of the people who rose with them was Thomas Bach, the German lawyer who currently serves as President of the International Olympic Committee. I have to assume that Bach is a busy man, seeing as he runs the most complicated sporting event in the world, but he made his way out to the Olympic Shooting Centre, in a western suburb of Rio, because he “wanted to see history made.”
And he did see it made. Even if Bob Costas didn’t. Even if NBC didn’t. Even if most Americans didn’t because they were too preoccupied with reports that day about Ryan Lochte ripping up a gas-station restroom and lying to his mother.
Normally I don’t believe in “media conspiracy” theories, but when we have a president and a highly visible presidential candidate constantly making antigun statements, repeatedly trying to reclassify sporting weapons as assault weapons, blaming terrorism on gun ownership, you have to wonder whether politics don’t filter down into the choice of flag bearers and the decisions about media exposure. Kimberly Rhode is a member of the National Rifle Association and an outspoken supporter of the Second Amendment. How could she not be? She started hunting rabbits and doves at age 3, armed with a BB gun and a pellet gun, and she learned to shoot competitively at age 10 through a free program sponsored by the NRA. At age 12 she went on her first safari.
But she’s also made more strides for feminism in the gun world than any single human being, with the possible exception of Zhang Shan of China. Shan is the woman who stunned the shooting world in 1992 when she won gold at Barcelona in skeet. The governing bodies didn’t like a woman beating every man in the world, and so they stopped letting women enter the men’s events and created a separate women’s event instead. They also made the rules different for the two events so that it would be impossible to compare the men’s scores to the women’s scores. (Up until 1984, women hadn’t been allowed to compete at all, and before 1992, the only women’s shooting events were three-position rifle, air rifle, and sport pistol—essentially the events that children train in.)
By the time Kimberly Rhode came along, the Olympic Committee had approved women’s events in double trap and skeet, two of the most prestigious men’s events. Kim won gold in double trap at her first Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, then bronze in 2000 in Sydney, then gold again in Athens in 2004—only to be told that women’s double trap would no longer be offered and so she would be unable to defend her title in 2008. She had to learn a completely new sport—skeet shooting. She had to throw out all of her training for the past 15 years and start over. And that’s when things got interesting.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was a sudden-death shoot-off for gold, silver, and bronze. She took silver. she had her best Olympics ever, winning gold in London while hitting 99 out of 100 targets to tie the world record she had set the same year, a record she shares with Slovak shooter Danka Bartekova, a record that still stands today.
Throughout these 20 years of competition, Kimberly has demonstrated all the qualities we expect from an athlete featured in an up-close-and-personal profile of the type NBC normally loves to display. She mentors young girls. She works with the Boy Scouts. Asked why she was coaching a young girl new to the Colorado Springs Olympic Shooting Center, she said, “Because she asked me.” She trains seven hours a day at a range in Newhall, Calif., shooting anywhere between 500 and 1,000 rounds. A 500-round day is better than a thousand-round day because her method is to go to each skeet station and shoot 25 highs, 25 lows, and 25 doubles. If she misses one, she makes herself start that station all over again. She continues until she’s covered all eight stations. Most impressively, she makes herself available to anyone and everyone interested in shooting—so much so that the gold on her first medal in Atlanta is starting to wear off because, whenever she poses for pictures, she drapes all her medals over the person she’s with. She passes them around the room at elementary schools so kids can touch them. In other words, she’s about as outgoing and civic-minded as it gets, the sort of patriot you might want…uh…carrying the flag?
Unless somebody, somehow, somewhere has a hang-up about that gun thing.
Kimberly was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, which is historically one of the great American ranching centers. I recently toured the oldest structure in the valley, the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, established in 1771 by two Franciscan priests sent to save the souls of the Indians and establish the claims of Spain to California. The mission still has a 1950s family-road-trip feel, with its antiquated gift shop and quaint signs explaining the finer points of tallow rendering and how to make adobe brick. What’s interesting to me is that, for security, the mission would have been defended by a musketeer, using the earliest version of the shotgun or what was later called, in its sawed-off form, the coach gun. I doubt there were any crack Spanish infantrymen sent to the wilds of California, but it wasn’t the clumsy weapon you see in Revolutionary War reenactments. A trained musketeer, using the matchlock musket invented in Spain, could fire five rounds per minute.
So the shotgun has a long history here. The mission is still functioning, but it’s now surrounded by suburban homes. The Rio Hondo, once the lifeblood of the mission, now irrigates a golf course. The orange groves are gone. The ranches are long gone. The San Gabriel Valley is the essence of urban sprawl and international communities, with lots of Asians settling here in the past twenty years. You don’t see as many horses as you once did, which is a shame because the sterling silver conches on the saddles of the California vaqueros were a thing of beauty. The Pasadena Sheriff’s Posse, which used to make occasional appearances at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, was a living lesson in the differences between the cowboy traditions of California and those of Texas. (Texans prefer less silver but fancier leatherwork.) But all of those traditions—the riding, the shotguns, the ranch life—derive from the Spanish, which would seem to be something we should be emphasizing right now.
Instead we have a lot of concentrated attempts to write off this heritage as culturally oppressive or, at best, meaningless. Kimberly Rhode is not toasted by the Hollywood glitterati. In fact, due to California laws passed within the past decade, she’s afraid that her mother’s deer rifle now legally qualifies as an assault weapon and can’t be passed on to her son. Dozens of youth programs are endangered by new state laws saying you can’t loan guns or shells, meaning coaches can’t help grade-school students and Boy Scouts can’t earn merit badges. Thousands of guns that have stayed within one family for generations—thereby unregistered and unregulated—are in a sort of legal limbo because they can’t be left in wills. Kimberly’s local gun club in Monrovia has a children’s program that allows kids to shoot for free once a month—except the local city council is trying to rezone the club out of existence.
It’s the kind of madness that NBC encourages with the way they cover the Olympics. They go for the safe story, and the obvious story, and the narrative line that reinforces whatever popular prejudices exist at the time. This is because of a conscious policy instituted in 1996 that all of their coverage would be (a) America-focused, and (b) female-friendly. (Tears, please. Lots of them. An early version of reality TV.) Unlike ABC, which had the Olympics franchise in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, NBC didn’t want a bunch of foreign-sounding names from exotic places covering up the chants of “USA! USA!” In other words, they program the Olympics according to templates drawn up long before the first event is ever played.
I attended those Atlanta Olympics where the NBC ratings strategy was first used, and saw firsthand how badly it works, because one of the events I witnessed was the men’s 5,000-meter race.
Track-and-field experts expected the race to be dominated by the Kenyans as usual, with two dark-horse prospects—Khalid Boulami of Morocco and Bob Kennedy of the United States. One of the runners not expected to do much had the tongue-twisting name of Venuste Niyongabo, a 23-year-old from Burundi who normally ran in much shorter races. He was the only Olympian from Burundi. Burundi was in the midst of a brutal civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis, and so he had paid his own way to the competition.
The 5,000 meters is twelve and a half laps around the track, so it takes about thirteen minutes to run. The two Kenyans ran their usual mind-bending race, taking the lead, giving it back up, passing each other, but Niyongabo didn’t take the bait, staying well back in the middle of the pack. With about five laps left he moved up to fourth, but he stopped behind the Kenyans and the Moroccan. That’s when Bob Kennedy, the American, decided to make his move. He passed the Kenyans. He passed Niyongabo. He looked to be opening up a lead of about ten to fifteen meters, and it probably helped his adrenaline when a cheer went up from the partisan Olympic Stadium crowd. Niyongabo didn’t try to catch him—he stayed in his steady lope—but he moved a little closer, meter by meter, as Kennedy inevitably had to settle back into a rhythm.
And then, when he got even with Kennedy’s right shoulder, Niyongabo stopped. It had to be disheartening to make the big move and then know that someone was staying right with you, close enough to whisper in your ear, but content to stay there.
And then Niyongabo decided it was time. With a lap to go, he passed Kennedy and he kept sprinting. He opened up a lead of ten meters, twenty, thirty, knowing that he would soon start to fade—he had only run this distance twice before—and that he had to make sure the lead was as large as possible before that happened. He was right. The other runners started to close on him in the last sixty to seventy meters, but he held on and continued to churn and won the race. It was the first gold medal for Burundi ever—in fact, the first medal of any kind for Burundi.
It was a great race, and a great story, but that’s not why I’m telling it here. At the post-race press conference, Niyongabo was asked whether he was a Hutu or a Tutsi, since 150,000 people had already died in the civil war there—and he refused to answer. “I run for Burundi,” he said. “I run for peace in my country.”
What an Olympic moment. What a moment to sum up what the Olympics are all about. A man refusing to speak about his own heritage because he wants to include all heritages. Unfortunately you didn’t see it on NBC, because NBC doesn’t understand moments like that. It hadn’t been drawn up in the pre-Olympic template and so they didn’t know what to do with it. NBC had an interview with the sixth-place-finishing Bob Kennedy.
And now NBC strikes again. Of course they don’t understand Kimberly Rhode. And if she goes on to medal in a seventh Olympics—a very real possibility, since at this point in her life she’s never even had her eyes tested—they still won’t understand her, or the heritage she comes from. But maybe if enough of us make enough noise about it, one of these days somebody will let her carry the flag. That would be the multicultural flag of the San Gabriel Valley, born with a Spanish musket, homeland of the American cowboy and the Asian immigrant. Because it’s all of those things and more. It’s even the skater dudes in board shorts. It’s even people who own shotguns.