Arrow-right Camera

Real Straight Shooters Teenagers Set Sights On Lofty Goals

To listen to Hattie Ponti describe the shooting experience borders on the otherworldly.

“It’s really weird,” the 15-year-old Athol, Idaho, resident says. “I’ll shoot the shot, and I’ll watch as the bullseye comes up close to me. I’ll watch the bullet pass through the paper in slow motion. I know what I shot even before I look through the scope.”

With that description, it isn’t too difficult to imagine just why Ponti has emerged one of the top sharpshooters in the Pacific Northwest, among both men and women competitors.

She’s been at the sport barely four years.

“I love everything about shooting,” says Ponti during practice at the Spokane Rifle Club. “I just love the challenge.”

In the Washington State Four Position Championships this spring - where competitors shot from standing, kneeling, prone and sitting positions - Ponti placed second overall and was first among female shooters.

More recently, the freshman at Lake City High School was seventh at the Junior Olympics in Colorado Springs, Colo., and qualified for the U.S. Junior National team.

About half the Spokane Rifle Club’s stereotype-breaking junior team, for which Ponti competes, is made up of girls. For whatever reason - it could be faster physical development, a sense of subtlety, or both - high school-aged girls typically are better shots than their male counterparts, said Earl Christensen, one of the team’s coaches.

It was a family friend who introduced Ponti to the range in 1993, when Christensen was coach for a now-defunct Cheney club.

“She was just a little bitty thing,” Christensen remembers. “She could hardly carry her gear. But she took to it like a duck to water.”

Even before that, Ponti said, she always loved to go out and “plink.” Her father, Jeff, is an avid hunter, and he got her started.

Ponti hasn’t hunted yet, but by now, she shyly admits, she’s a better shot than Dad.

“I tell everybody I haven’t hunted yet because he’s afraid I’ll show him up,” Ponti said. “Actually, I still have to take a hunter safety course.”

There’s a lot more to shooting than simply learning how to hold the rifle properly or squeezing the trigger, Christensen says. That’s the easy part. The crux is learning to relax your nerves.

In her neophyte years in the sport, Ponti is averaging 286 out of a possible 300 shots in three-position competition. By shooting standards, Christensen says, Ponti has progressed at “light speed.”

Rachel Westergren, 17, a teammate and senior at Mead High School, says the hierarchy on the rifle club team is distinctly egalitarian - even among the boys. Hattie is the best shot on the team, but there are no hard feelings.

“I think Hattie gets a lot of respect from the guys,” Westergren says. “A lot of people think shooting is a macho sport, but after competing for a while, you realize it’s more of a mental game.”

No slouch herself, Westergren will shoot with the Air Force Academy rifle team next year.

That’s where Ponti would like to go to school. After that, she dreams of duplicating Cheney resident Launi Meili’s gold-medal performance in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Ponti is the only member of the junior rifle team who has moved to shooting larger, military-style arms. In this new discipline, she must fire more rapidly because of time limits, as opposed to the slower, deliberate style of the small-bore .22 caliber rifle competitions.

Al Ewing, her coach with the larger weapons, is a member of the U.S. Army Reserve team, which shoots at competitions around the world. He says the transition between the small-bore and the larger AR-15 weapon isn’t easy.

But just like the first stages of her career, Ponti’s progress here is well ahead of schedule. Ewing said she’s proficient enough to join his team, made up of some of the best shooters in the country.

“Hattie has the ability, but the biggest thing is she has the focus,” Ewing said. “It’s a sport for all ages, and she’s certainly proved that.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

MEMO: See related story under the headline: Finding proper shooting facilities an age-old struggle

This sidebar appeared with the story: TAKE AIM Shooters interested in the Spokane Rifle Club can call 327-9632.

See related story under the headline: Finding proper shooting facilities an age-old struggle

This sidebar appeared with the story: TAKE AIM Shooters interested in the Spokane Rifle Club can call 327-9632.

Tags: profile