Melissa Quartarone, a senior on the Ole Miss rifle team, has risen to a high level of shooting since picking up the sport as a Parkview freshman. (Staff Photo: Will Hammock)
The tiny Parkview freshman who showed up for ROTC tryouts and a spot on the rifle team seven years ago wasn’t taken too seriously.
Standing roughly 4-foot-9 and rail thin from a recent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, Melissa Quartarone was initially overlooked during her early practices for the Panthers in 2006. Her coach thought the 15-pound rifle was too heavy, so her older and more sturdy teammates got most of the action in practices.
But Quartarone wasn’t easily discouraged and wasn’t about to be overlooked, and one day she got her chance when her teammates didn’t show up for practice.
She quickly showed she could handle the rifle that day, and by her sophomore season she was a team captain. She earned all-state honors twice during her time at Parkview, sending her on a path that has included a successful shooting career at Ole Miss and a fifth-place finish in smallbore rifle this year at USA Shooting Nationals.
Not bad for a girl who almost didn’t get the opportunity.
“At the time, I was told I was too small, too little to do it, but I stuck with it,” the Ole Miss senior said. “They were very concerned that I was going to be able to hold it. But I’m stubborn. I stuck it out. … For me, just being diagnosed (with Crohn’s), it was a personal challenge. I wanted to succeed at something. I had been sick so long. I just wanted to do really well. It was kind of neat to say, ‘Hey, I told you I could do it.’”
Quartarone’s pre-Parkview shooting was limited to her backyard, shooting at cans with a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun she got as a sixth-grader. Her natural skills became apparent immediately during high school, when the new sport replaced her longtime loves, ballet and tap, after her dance studio closed.
She progressed quickly to higher levels thanks to her work with local shooting clubs. Though she’s still pretty petite — she’s just 5-1 — she is strong enough that she prefers her rifles near the maximum weight allowed in women’s shooting.
“Rifle was a nice way of getting me back into the game and staying active,” Quartarone said. “It’s really helped out. I’ve gotten into running and aerial yoga. Rifle’s been a way of getting me back on my feet and staying active.
“I was really sick for three or four months (with Crohn’s) going into high school. It’s been an up and down game. With any chronic disease, there are ups and downs. It’s been major ups these past two years. Things are going really well. I wouldn’t say I’ve beaten it, but I’m on the way.”
She’s on her way in the shooting world, too.
After contributing immediately as an Ole Miss freshman, she has led the Rebels in smallbore average the past two seasons. She hopes to lead the team to NCAAs during her final college season, building off her fifth-place finish at USAS Nationals.
With each passing year, she has learned more about shooting, trying to make herself a “sponge” to any coaching advice she gets. Unlike some competitors she didn’t grow up hunting (she still hasn’t hunted), so all her shooting experience has come since ninth grade.
All the intricacies of the sport make it challenging, but it has made her enjoy it more.
“It’s a form. It’s a technical skill. It’s a lot of different things,” Quartarone said of shooting. “We have a lot of gear, so a lot of times you’ll find yourself adjusting where your sling goes, where your hand stop goes, where your butt plate goes. You’ll have things like that, that are very technical and equipment related. We’re constantly tinkering. We’re very good tinkerers. … A lot of times you’ll find me adjusting. I’ll tape some stuff here or chop some stuff off there. Our rifles end up looking strange, like Frankenstein.
“There’s a lot of skill and technique to work on, too. How does your trigger pull? Are you really taking advantage of that first stage and second stage? You have a two-stage trigger. Are you doing a smooth trigger pull? How is your breathing? Are you aligning your sights properly? It’s a lot of little things and it’s a big mental game.”
A busy and highly coveted internship has kept Quartarone off the shooting range for most of this summer.
The forensic chemistry major, also a three-time Collegiate Rifle Coaches Association Academic All-American, is an intern this summer with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s trace evidence section. She has gained experience in a variety of fields the past few months, including some training in the firearms division.
“Forensic chemistry is a very malleable major,” Quartarone said. “Once you get into the field of forensics, you don’t necessarily have to work in chemistry. If I get tired of chemistry, I can work in trace evidence or firearms. It allows me to take parts of the things I enjoy doing like mechanical operations, like firearms. You have to be able to take the weapon apart, put it back together, know how it works, what causes things to shape the bullet like it does. I like that it’s very mobile. There are a lot of opportunities for jobs. There is a lot of job security in something based on crime. I really like solving mysteries, too.”
However, that career path may be on hold after her Ole Miss graduation next year.
Quartarone is pondering a two-year, post-graduate commitment to her shooting career, a gauge of sorts to see how far she can rise when she’s dedicated to the sport full-time. Her fifth-place finish at nationals this year has sparked thoughts of making the U.S. National Team and earning a trip to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Those are lofty, but attainable, goals for an athlete who has come so far since those days as a skinny Parkview freshman.
“I’m very serious about (trying to make the National Team and Olympics),” she said. “I’d really like to do it. … It’s only been the past year that I’ve really thought seriously about it. Especially this past nationals solidified my desire to be on the national team and go to the Olympics. It seems like it would be a great way to at least close the door on it, kind of keep it as a hobby but see how far I can take it before I retire and just occasionally pick it up. I won’t have that what if. What if I had taken it to the next level?”