|In the pantheon of America’s Olympic sports greatness, Kim Rhode has no equal. Not one person competing in an individual sport can boast of winning five Olympic medals in five consecutive Olympic Games. If she medals Friday in Rio, Rhode will be the first female Olympian to win medals in six straight Olympic Games. Italian luger Armin Zoeggeler has already achieved such incredible ranking.
She’s not the only star attraction taken to the ranges at the Deodoro Shooting Center Friday. Joining her in this shooting sports smorgasbord will be her skeet teammates Morgan Craft (Muncy Valley, Pennsylvania), Vincent Hancock (Eatonton, Georgia) and Frank Thompson(Alliance, Nebraska). Hancock and Thompson shoot their first 75 targets Friday followed by their final 50 qualification targets on Saturday, plus hopefully a Final.
The first medal to be decided will be in Men’s Prone Rifle where Michael McPhail (Darlington, Wisconsin) lies among the world powers anxious for a medal. Joining him on the line will be David Higgins (San Clemente, California), a recent graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a soon to Marine. Also in action, is the start of Men’s Rapid Fire Pistol featuring three-time Olympian Keith Sanderson (Colorado Springs, Colorado) and six-time Olympian and 1996 silver medalist Emil Milev (Temple Terrace, Florida).
But clearly, the spotlight shines brightest on Rhode. Is there any encore for the already unprecedented? With nothing left to prove in her sport and legendary status already achieved, what more does the journey have in store? As before, the challenges are real. Now a mother after giving birth to son Carter in 2013, she’s balancing motherhood while trying to maintain her place atop the sport. That she can handle no doubt and has demonstrated as much having earned medals in four of the six World Cup events she’s competed in while winning three gold medals during that time. The challenge comes in dealing with the health setbacks that afflicted her all throughout a rough pregnancy and which still continue to be an issue. She had her gall bladder removed six weeks after Carter was born. She’s been admitted to the hospital three more times post-pregnancy for various things including vitamin deficiency, the most recent an unplanned visit in Cyprus following her World Cup event in May 2014.
The greater the challenge, the sweeter the reward, according to Rhode. She takes great pride in both recognizing and embracing the incredible journey. It’s this premise that essentially captures nearly 30 years of competitive shooting.
“Every medal has been so unique, each tied to a specific obstacle,” said Rhode. It’s not necessarily the medals you cherish, but the journey that goes into it and overcoming those obstacles. Winning is what makes it that much sweeter. The harder the obstacle to overcome, the sweeter the victory. It’s what makes each Olympian come back again and again.”
How much does winning s sixth medal motivate her? “It would be huge,” she admits. “But it’s not about just me. It’s what it means to the sport, to the shooting industry. It’s a huge driving force in that aspect. Personally, I think it would be big, but it’s more about all the other factors. It’s never about that for me. It’s always been about what I can do to give back, move forward and hopefully inspire kids and the next generation.”
She is this generation’s Annie Oakley, but perhaps identifies most closely with a quote uttered by Calamity Jane, another fabled female figure of American western history.“I figure if a girl wants to be a legend, she should go ahead and be one.”
Her status as a legend already confirmed, Rhode’s now working on the next great chapter.
ATHLETE EXTRA: Rhode’s Sports Illustrated Video Interview
MORGAN CRAFT: Crafting Her Own Fate
On July 27, 2012, as a freshman at shotgun powerhouse Lindenwood University, Morgan Craft remembers getting this text from teammate Dustin Perry as she watched the 2012 Opening Ceremony in her dorm room that’s proving quite prophetic. “You know what, that’s going to be us in four years.”
He proved to be half right as Perry would fall to ninth in overall selection. But there’s no doubt Craft is representing him and all those shotgun athletes with a dream when she makes her Olympic debut Friday.
The 2015 World Champ started shooting international skeet at age 14 after finding the sport through 4-H. She graduated in 2015 from Lindenwood University near St. Louis majoring in Exercise Science. She qualified for her first Olympics by not finishing outside the top-eight internationally once in five events. In an ultra-tight Olympic points battle with teammate Caitlin Connor, it came down to a gold-medal shoot-off between the two of them during the World Championships that ultimately earned Craft her ticket.
“Getting to the Olympics is what I’ve worked so hard for and I’m extremely satisfied and excited about the opportunity,” she says. “Competing against the best and being an Olympic medalist would be an extremely big deal. It sets you apart. But if something doesn’t fall into place and I don’t become a medalist, I will still be satisfied. But that goal now is to be on top of the podium no doubt.”
ATHLETE EXTRA: Craft’s Sports Illustrated Video Interview
Sutiya Jiewchaloemmit of Thailand is currently ranked No. 1 in the world. China’s Ning Wei was runner-up to Rhode in London and finished second as well in Athens. She was on the podium last summer as a bronze medalist at the World Championships. Slovakia’s Danka Bartekova is the reigning Olympic bronze medalist. Also, keep an eye on Great Britain’s 19-year-old Amber Hill who won last year’s World Cup Final and picked up a three other World Cup medals this quad. Diana Bacosi of Italy and Poland’s Aleksandra Jarmolinska currently hold the world record, scoring a perfect score of 75 targets in two different matches in 2015.
Format: Competitors in international skeet shoot on eight different stations to hit two orange clay targets per series thrown from two houses located at the left and right end of the range. The house on the left is called “High House”, and the one on the right is called “Low House.” Competitors shoot at each station one-at-a-time. During qualification, every women’s competitor has to shoot 75 targets, divided in three rounds of 25 targets each. Every round involves up to six athletes, who shoot from stations number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 rotating from left to right and shooting single or double targets according to a fixed scheme. The top-six athletes from the qualification phase advance to the semifinal round, where they shoot 16 targets each from stations number 3, 4, 5 and 4 again. During the semifinals, targets are always thrown as doubles and the athletes switch to the following station every two doubles. The semifinal round concludes when every athlete has fired four targets from station number 3, 4 and 5, and four last targets again from station number 4. The top-two athletes from the semifinal round advance to the gold-medal match, while the next two athletes advance to the bronze- medal match. The two medal matches are conducted with the same rules of the semifinals: the two finalists shoot 16 targets from stations number 3, 4, 5 and 4 again. All ties are broken by shoot-offs.
Qualification – 8:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. ET
Finals – 2:00 p.m. | FINALS LIVESTREAM starting at 2:00 p.m. ET
Men’s Prone Rifle
Michael McPhail. Darlington, Wisconsin – Rifle
One of the top Prone Rifle shooters in the world, the 2012 Olympian has earned 10 medals in international competition including two World Cup wins in 2015. A Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army, he is one of the soldier-athletes for U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit.
ATHLETE EXTRA: Olympian Michael McPhail
David Higgins. San Clemente, California – Rifle
Staged a remarkable comeback in the final round of Olympic Team Trials, passing three-time Olympic medalist Matt Emmons to earn his Olympic nomination. He graduated from the Air Force Academy in June becoming the first cadet-athlete ever to qualify for the Olympic Games. He’ll enlist in the Marines follow his competition in Rio.
ATHLETE EXTRA: The Wild Card, David Higgins
The current world record of 633.0 points was scored by Sergey Kamenskiy of Russia last year. The title defender this year is Sergei Martynov of Bulgaria. Martynov is 48 years old, and has been competing since 1986. Currently ranked No. 1 in this discipline is Torben Grimmel of Denmark.
Format: In Prone Rifle, athletes shoot over a distance of 50 meters or 165 feet in prone position. For many, it looks like these shooters are just laying on their stomachs, but the position is actually very formulaic for each shooter to maximize their stability while shooting at dime-sized targets from so far away. These shooters are using a .22-caliber rifle with a maximum weight of 17 pounds. The center of the target is positioned at two and a half feet above the floor and its total diameter measures six inches across. This is just a little smaller than the diameter of a professional soccer ball. The diameter of the tenth ring measures less than a half an inch. That means these shooters are aiming at a ten ring smaller than a dime 165 feet away. The use of specialized clothing is allowed to improve the stability of the shooting positions, but must meet strict flexibility standards to prevent cheating of any sort.
During the qualification round every competitor has to fire 60 shots within 50 minutes. The qualifications are scored in decimal points, with the maximum score per shot being 10.9 points because of an additional set of 10 rings within the 10-point circle that increases the score of 0.1 points as it approaches the center of the target. The maximum qualification score is 654.0 points. The top-eight athletes from the qualification phase advance to the final match, where they can shoot up to 20 final shots. The maximum score for each shot is still 10.9 points, setting the highest possible score at 218.0 points. The eight finalists start the match with 0 points: the qualification score is not carried forward into the final round. The final begins with two series of 3 shots, to be fired within 100 seconds, followed by 14 single shots to be fired on command and within 30 seconds. After the eighth final shot, the athlete with the lowest aggregate score is eliminated from the final and places eighth. Any following elimination is determined every two shots until the gold and silver medalists are decided by the 20th and conclusive shot. If there is a tie for the lowest ranking athlete to be eliminated, the tied athletes will fire additional tie-breaking single shots until the tie is broken.
Qualification – 8:00 – 8:50 a.m. ET
Finals – 11:00 a.m. | FINALS LIVESTREAM starting at 11:00 a.m. ET
Vincent Hancock. Eatonton, Georgia
The two-time Olympic gold medalist has been shooting competitively since he was 11 years old, winning a world title at 16. Should he win gold again in Rio, he’d become the first shooter ever and just the sixth American to win 3 consecutive Olympic gold medals in the same event.
ATHLETE EXTRA: Vincent Hancock, the Skeet Shooting Phenom
ATHLETE EXTRA: Hancock’s Sports Illustrated Video Interview
Frank Thompson. Alliance, Nebraska
This Nebraskan cattle rancher has etched a name for himself in the world of international skeet shooting. He was on the cusp of an Olympic medal in London in 2012, finishing eighth. Having competed in 16 World Cups and four World Championships, Thompson is hoping that his biggest international breakthrough comes in Rio de Janeiro with a spot on the podium.
ATHLETE EXTRA: Frank Thompson Cattleman & Athlete
Rapid Fire Pistol
Keith Sanderson. Colorado Springs, Colorado
Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson is a rapid fire pistol shooter in the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program. He is a two-time Olympian who started his military career as a United States Marine for eight years before deciding to switch over to the United States Army Reserves.
ATHLETE EXTRA: Keith Sanderson’s Theory of Everything
Emil Milev. Temple Terrace, Florida
This elementary school PE teacher will make his sixth Olympic appearance at the 2016 Olympic Games and second trip representing the U.S. He previously competed for his native Bulgaria in four Olympics, including a silver-medal appearance at the 1996 Games.
ATHLETE EXTRA: Emil Milev Is Still Living a Dream