LONDON — In the last three days of the London Olympics, American shooters broke Summer Games records in winning gold.
Kimberly Rhode sniped 99 out of 100 targets for a world record in skeet, becoming the first American athlete to win individual medals in five straight Olympics. Vince Hancock, meanwhile, set a skeet shooting record with a 123 in qualifying, before becoming the first American man to defend an Olympic gold in skeet, having won in Beijing in 2008.
So why is the U.S. so dominant in the sport over the last several years?
"I really think it's because we want it more. And we've been bringing the youth along with us," Hancock said.
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That determination includes tireless training: Hancock trained 10 hours a day, seven days a week while growing up in Georgia, and that intense training continued as part of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit.
To prepare for the London Games, Rhode traveled up and down the West Coast to find shooting ranges that mimicked the weather conditions in the U.K. — including shooting in the rain in Oregon.
Hancock said the elite American shooters set a standard that brings up the competitive level of all shooters. "I've been shooting high scores for eight or nine years now. When I first started out, a 192 out of 200 in a local competition would win it. Now, it's barely making the final," he said.
"With Kim and I shooting these extremely high scores, it's making everyone else shoot harder, and be more proficient and hit more targets. And that's making us shoot even harder. Kim and I know that if we slip up, we're going to lose."
Losing wasn't an option for Hancock, an Army sergeant. Not when he's representing his nation. "It's really an honor to come out here and represent my country," he said after winning gold at the Royal Artillery Barracks on Tuesday.
"Just to be able to show them that we're so much more than soldiers. That we're athletes and husbands and fathers. We're everything that makes America great. To come out here on the greatest stage of them all, it's awesome to listen to your national anthem and sing along to it, and just know that people overseas are watching you and that you're representing them."
Hancock, 23, hasn't been deployed yet due to his training schedule — his brother has been in country three times. He said the Army has changed his life for the better.
"It's given me a different way to look at things. It's made me the man that I am today. I can proudly say that I would not be where I am today without them. It's made me a better husband, a better father and a better friend. It's given me …," he pauses, searching for the words, "I don't even know how to say it. They've given so much to my family."
With two Olympic golds, Hancock believes it's time for him to give something to the shooting community in the U.S. — a community caught up in the political wake of the Aurora "Dark Knight" shooting tragedy and other high-profile moments of gun violence.
"First and foremost, my regards to the families [in Aurora]. But [the shooting] really doesn't shed the light that we embrace in the Olympics," he said. "There is nothing dangerous about what we do here, at any level. The biggest thing that we preach is safety first."
Hancock believes shooting is one of the safest sports for competitors of any responsible age.
"I always tell a joke out there that we have less injuries than table tennis," he said.
With the U.S. breaking records and collecting gold in Olympic shooting, Hancock believes he and Rhode can be a positive influence in the gun debate back home.
"Everything can be taken in a different light. But I think it would be a good opportunity for us to go out there and show them what we do," he said.
Sometimes, that message is as simple as exposure to the sport. Hancock recalled one journalist about five years ago whose opinion was quickly altered after a day on the range.
"She was extremely anti-gun. But I talked her into trying it," he said. "And once she hit some targets, you couldn't take her off the field."