IT WAS like the old days at London's Royal Artillery Barracks on Sunday: the air full of thunder, a brutal excellence on display. Nothing could distract Kim Rhode—not the Swedish challenger kneeling as if in desperate prayer, not the Turkish champion waving her hand as if to cast a useless spell. Rain pelted down, but Rhode kept blasting skeet out of the sky. In between—arms draped over the shotgun stock, muzzle poking into her foot—she looked as if she were waiting for little more than the next bus.
"Who does that?" said her husband, Mike Harryman, from the stands. "I'm biting my nails off and ready to throw up. I think she does that to stress us out. She's got an amazing gift."
If that wasn't clear before, it is now. Rhode, 33, took 100 shots and missed just one en route to becoming one of the greatest U.S. Olympians ever. Until Rhode, no American in an individual sport had ever won a medal at five straight Games. And she showed no sign of letting up. "The oldest medalist in the history of the Olympics was a shooter who was 72," she said. "So I still have a few in me."
That is music to USOC ears. Never mind that Rhode collects children's books and builds kit cars for fun; she's a dominant talent whose road to London was textbook Olympic drama. While she was wedding shopping in 2008, Old Faithful, the gun that she used to win her first four medals, was stolen. In April 2011, Rhode discovered an egg-sized lump in her right breast that required surgery and led to a month of pure fear before she learned the tumor was benign. "It was like torture; you think the worst," she says. "Then you start taking tests, and it comes back with irregular lymph nodes and they want to take seven more scans; I truly had accepted that I had cancer. Then the last news I got was that I didn't."
Traveling to London should've been the easy part. But her flight was delayed for three days, and when Rhode was finally ready to go, she said, "the dog eats the tickets." She posted the proof on Twitter. A gate agent sympathized. When she finally arrived at the Games, Rhode was peppered with questions about the record and the shooting spree in Aurora, Colo. Come Sunday, though, all that disappeared. "For me today," Rhode said, "it was very easy." She serenely clipped bird after bird, 25 straight in the final.
It was the day that she had worked for her entire career, driving 100 miles to the range, shooting up to 1,000 rounds a day—in the rain if possible, to replicate London's conditions. The only thing she hadn't prepared for was that moment after she hit her 18th target, clinching the title. Rhode tried not to think then of her mother and father, her husband, their sacrifices, her scare and their fear. It took all she had. You can't shoot well when your eyes go blurry.
After, though, Rhode needed just one glance at their faces. Her voice began to break. "It makes me cry now, just thinking about it," Rhode said. And so she did.