To her family, the idea that Hattie Johnson is going to Athens next month to shoot at targets – and at a medal – in the Olympic Games is a great joy, but no great surprise.
After all, she once wrote an essay about it for school. Freshman year, sophomore year, maybe junior high – no one can remember for sure when – but that’s when she laid it all out on paper, which sort of made it official. In her own mind, of course, she’d envisioned herself gazing up at that flag with the five rings long before that.
“The thing was, I wanted it from the very beginning,” she said. “From day one on the range, I could see myself being an Olympic shooter. I didn’t think I’d make it this early, but this wasn’t just something that came over time.”
So then, no great surprise. Hattie’s going to the Olympics.
Never mind that her hometown of Athol, Idaho – population 676 – has produced more world-class rollercoaster’s than world-class athletes.
That’s what we know about Athol, right? The amusement park down the highway and the name that has launched a thousand double entendres.
And now there’s Hattie Johnson, Olympic shooter.
That distinction came true in May in Fort Benning, Ga., at the final selection match in women’s 10-meter air rifle, an event easily mistaken for the Olympic Trials in tension and anxiety.
The 22-year-old Johnson, a specialist in the U.S. Army Marksmanship unit, had shot herself into prime position for one of the two U.S. berths in the event, just three points behind Emily Caruso heading into the final round.
“But the final went kind of rough and I thought I’d shot myself off the team,” she recalled. “I felt like I just gave it away. But I got a little lucky.”
The third-place shooter, 1988 Olympian Deena Wigger, daughter of four-time Olympian and gold medalist Lones Wigger, had posted the third-best score of the final, but still came up 1.8 short of Johnson – not much of a margin when the final totals approach 1,400 points.
“But I’ve known people who lost by three-tenths of a point,” Johnson said.
As a result, Johnson’s post-match emotions were evenly spread between numbness and relief, which is more than could be said for her father, Since Jess and Holly Ponti had never seen Hattie compete in the four years since she’d been accepted to the marksmanship unit out of high school, she bought them plane tickets to the Trials – though only Holly sat out on the line, tracking her daughter’s scores.
“I don’t deal with the pressure very well,” Jess conceded.
“He even faked a couple of days that he was sick,” Johnson laughed.
The curiosity in that was that it was Jess Ponti who was always on the line with Hattie from the time she first picked up a rifle, scoring matches, just being there – the guy who put the miles on the family rig shuttling her to as many as three different practice sites a week and matches on the weekend, the one who both encouraged her enthusiasm and insisted on perspective.
“In any sport, you can see it becoming more of a thing for the parents than it is for the kids,” he said. “This was never like that. I could see that from day one. It was always her saying, Let’s go, we’re going to be late.’ This was something she was not going to give up.”
This was at age 11. Jess Ponti, a heavy duty diesel mechanic, had worked with a man named Jack Overdorf, whose granddaughters both shot for the junior rifle team then based in Cheney – the one, yes, that had started Launi Meili on her way to a gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. Hattie Ponti had seen the pictures of the two girls on Overdorf’s desk, and talked her way into a trip to the range.
“I was just going to sit and watch,” she said, “but a couple of the coaches, Bob Orth and Earl Christensen, said, You’re going to shoot.’ So they fitted me to a gun and got me a jacket and I shot some prone. I was in the fifth grade and I knew what I wanted to do.”
The next day, she took her targets to show her teacher.
She became an instant regular, and a source of some amusement on the range – until a few of the adults got a look at her scores.
“A lot of the guys would tease her and try to feed her chocolate,” said Holly. “They wouldn’t shoot if she was on the line.”
Just what makes a shooter a “natural” is hard to say – eye, temperament and concentration certainly help – but it was obvious early that Hattie possessed an unnatural aptitude. She qualified for the national Junior Olympics in Colorado Springs in her first year of shooting – eventually winning the women’s 3-position smallbore in 1999 – and was soon winning state championships.
But she was a prodigy indulged only to the extent that she was afforded opportunity. Sacrifice, she learned quickly, was as important as success.
The Pontis – Jess, Holly, Hattie and sisters Casey and Jessica – lived in Spokane, near Felts Field, and would until Hattie’s freshman year in high school, when they bought 10 acres near the Kootenai-Bonner county line. What the family gained in country living they paid for in country driving; with the junior team always in search of more range time, Jess and Hattie might find themselves in Cheney one night, Hillyard the next, Coeur d’Alene another night and then back on the road for matches, sometimes all the way across the state, on the weekends.
And then there was the matter of a rifle. Hattie didn’t have one.
“She shot club equipment and was happy to shoot whatever she could,” Jess reported. “We were raising three kids and putting my wife through school (Holly is now a nurse in Post Falls) and we couldn’t afford a $1,000 rifle – and wouldn’t even if we could.”
She was nearly 15 when another of her coaches, Bill Havercroft, made her a gift of a used German-man Suhl – a treasure, to be sure, but one that came after a proper lesson.
“It was about not making excuses,” Jess said. “She was taught from the beginning that all those club rifles – no matter what they might look like – were capable of shooting center shots.
“She’d go to big matches – the Junior Olympics – shooting club equipment, wearing a canvas coat and shooting in her jeans. When we look back on it, it made her concentrate on the other things that much harder. She came up through the ranks right.”
Did we say Hattie Johnson was no great surprise? Let’s backtrack a bit.
In her junior year at Timberlake High School, she entered the Junior Miss competition, which she happened to win, scoring the highest in the interview and in physical fitness – and in talent.
Well, sure – she was one of the best young rifle shooters in the country. But, what, did they truck the contestants and judges outside for target practice?
“Would you believe she sang – with no music?” marveled her mother. “No one had any idea she could sing. I mean, you all sing in the car, but we kind of laughed when she said that’s what she was going to do. She sang that Sarah McLachlan song, Angel’ – and everybody was kind of in shock. They were asking us if we’d given her lessons.”
But if she was going to have a ticket to college, it was going to be shooting. A small but prestigious knot of universities field collegiate rifle teams and Hattie applied to most of them, but was offered only partial rides. Disappointed, she made a second entreaty to the marksmanship unit, which had initially rejected her – and wound up connecting.
In more ways than one. At Fort Benning, she succumbed and went out on a blind date “against my better judgment” with a fellow unit specialist from North Carolina named Robbie Johnson. They’ve now been married a year and a half.
After going through basic and advanced infantry training – she’s assigned as a field medic – Johnson basically didn’t shoot a rifle competitively for a year, and struggled for a time to get her eye and rhythm back. But she had a good season in 2003 – winning a bronze medal in the Pan-American Games 3-position, as well as a silver and bronze at the national championships.
She remembers, after winning a couple of medals as a pre-teen shooter, getting a postcard from Meili, the gold medal example to every kid who pulled a trigger in Cheney or Spokane.
“It talked about all these being little stepping stones,” Johnson recalled. “When they dedicated the range to her in Cheney, I got to hold her gold medal and get a picture with her and that made a pretty good impression. You never know what can happen or who it will happen to.
“If I can keep myself cool and calm and keep my anxiety down, I can do well. Everybody’s expectations when you go to the Olympics are to put yourself on the medal stand. If you don’t have that for yourself, you probably shouldn’t be going. Everybody’s confident and competitive, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be the same way.”
It would only be a surprise if she wasn’t.
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