Rhode’s experience as an Olympic athlete is recognizable in many ways: years of training in virtual anonymity; nerve-wracking moments during which dreams can be realized or shattered; medal ceremonies where tears stream out of relief as much as pride.
But Rhode, 33, is confronted with questions that few other athletes face because she is a shooter — a term embraced by Rhode and other athletes who shoot rifles and pistols for sport. Olympic shooters must deal with unfortunate associations: They compete in a sport — one that demands concentration and decades of practice — that also requires a machine that, when used maliciously, can kill people.
At a news conference last Thursday, before she earned a gold medal in women’s skeet shooting, Rhode was asked about another shooter, arguably a more famous one, who used a rifle, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol to kill 12 and injure 58 in a packed movie theater. As with most mass shootings, the backdrop was pedestrian. The targets, random — the opposite of what happens at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where Rhode and other members of USA Shooting practice their sport.
Yes, they have thoughts on Aurora.
Yes, gun violence affects these gold medalists.
Yes, mass shootings will always impact the sport.
“Our event as a sport is completely different from an isolated incident,” Rhode said during Thursday’s news conference, according to press accounts. “It’s very important to us that our sport is not generalized. The lines get blurred between news and a sport that teaches discipline.”
Most other athletes get a pass on the podium. Swimmer Ryan Lochte won’t be asked about drownings in community pools. Gymnast Gabby Douglas will not be asked to comment on freak accidents at school jungle gyms. But with 30,000 firearms deaths in the United States each year, half of which are suicides, questions of gun violence are almost inevitable for sports shooters. The team counters images of violence with stories of Olympic success.
“The biggest challenge in our sport is the education piece,” said Dave Johnson, national rifle coach for USA Shooting. “Whether in the sport or out of it, everyone was horrified [by Aurora] and we’re not different, but the questions sometimes show that folks don’t know what the sport is about.”
“We are one of the safest sports going,” said Vincent Hancock, 23, a U.S. Army soldier who won a gold medal in skeet shooting Tuesday. “There are more injuries in Ping-Pong than there are in shooting.”
“Some of the nicest, most gentle people I have ever met are shooters,” said Matt Emmons, 31, a 2004 gold medalist competing in London. “It’s unfortunate these incidents are reflected upon us.”