When Melissa Quartarone was 14 years old, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the intestines.
She remembers getting into rifle after being diagnosed, then later filling out a scholarship for how she had lived beyond Crohn’s.
At that point, in high school, Quartarone had earned a distinguished badge for rifle, and it was numbered, No. 256, something that she will never forget. She thought that was the biggest thing ever and that she had taken her sport to the top.
Since then, she said, it has kept going and keeps getting better, and she doesn't want it to end.
Quartarone was referring specifically to rifle, but it could have also been her summer internship with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, or perhaps, one day, living without Crohn’s disease.
“Physically, I was just weak,” she said of her diagnosis. “I was 20 pounds under weight. So I came into the next year, and I wasn't sure I was even able to do rifle. The coach thought I was too small. It was a 15-pound rifle, and I only weighed 60 pounds myself.
“But I am stubborn, and I wanted to have something. I wanted to be able to do something. I didn't just want to sit around and be, 'all woe is me.' I needed something. I needed a physical outlet, and rifle really gave me that to begin with. I feel like sometimes in high school that I coddled the fact that I wasn't physically able to do a lot of things. And when I came to college, I wanted to shut that off.”
The senior from Stone Mountain, Ga., did ballet and tap dancing for 12 years, and then switched to rifle, which she said was a lot less physically demanding and was almost like physical therapy for her disease in a way. Her start in the sport, like everything thing else, was her inner drive.
“My coach didn't want me to be there,” Quartarone said. “He sent out an email to everyone who made the team. I didn't get one, and the understanding was if you didn't get an email, you didn't show up to practice. I showed up to practice. I don't let anyone hold me back. If someone is going to hold me back, it's going to be me, and nobody else.
“And it was funny because I showed up to practice, and nobody else did. That was the day he outfitted me in all my gear. That was the day I shot a perfect 100 in prone. I like to disprove people. I just had to prove them wrong. And when I did, it was glorious.”
From there, Quartarone started being recruited for rifle, during which she was told to choose a school for academics first then choose a school for its athletics. Forensic Chemistry led her to Ole Miss.
As part of her major, forensic chemistry, Quartarone is required to do an internship in a certified lab. She applied to the GBI, because she wanted to go back home. After a polygraph test and phone interview, in late May, she was notified that she received the internship.
Her first month, the primary two things she did was run a hair study, comparing forcibly removed hairs to normal hairs from a brush or comb, and collecting paint data for the Royal Canadian Mounted Policy Paint Data Query database, which is a searchable database of chemical and color information of automotive paint.
The second month, Quartarone did a lot of work with other sections, from the medical examiner's office, to toxicology, to chemistry, to firearms to forensic DNA, to latent prints.
For Quartarone, her internship showed her that she could do a lot more with forensic chemistry than she had originally thought.
“The people that I met there, they encouraged me to go away from my major, forensic chemistry,” she said. “While I'm good at chemistry, and I understand it, I found I would probably get bored with doing chemistry every day. It encouraged me to do more hands-on, mechanical things that you can't do with chemistry. I was looking more at latent prints, trace evidence and firearms, more like physical evidence than drug analysis.”
Rifle has kept her grounded, and while she looks forward to a possible career in forensic chemistry, Quartarone has some collegiate rifle goals that she hasn’t met.
A three-time Academic All-American and a second team All-American her sophomore season, she wants to help Ole Miss make the NCAA Championships as well as compete as an individual.
After graduation in May, Quartarone plans to train for two years to see if she can make the national team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, a goal she set for herself after a fifth-place finish at USAS nationals this year.
“You would think that having the internship would make me want to jump right into the crime lab, but really, it made me want to come into that, knowing that I had completed another stage of my life.
“I've been with rifle for almost eight years now, and I desire to have that completion, that feeling of taking it as far as I can take it. I won't feel that until I give everything to try and make the Olympic team and see where that takes me.”
Making the national team or an Olympic team is the ultimate, but for Quartarone, it has been more about moving forward and feeling like she has lived beyond her disease.
“If the next two years, I don't ever make the national team, or the Olympics, I don't think I will be disappointed because it's a learning process, and I'm going to be doing something I love,” she said. “I won't be disappointed in myself. I will be satisfied that I tried.”
When asked about the biggest surprise, it wasn’t rifle, or school, but how much better she feels physically, that sometimes she forgets she has Crohn’s disease until she has to get a medical infusion, which is how the disease is treated.
Quartarone used to have to go every eight weeks and get a medical infusion. Now, it’s every 10 or 12 weeks, and she said it is plausible for her to be fully healthy in the future without medical infusions.
That is living beyond Crohn’s disease.
Austin Miller is a writer and blogger for OleMissSports.com. He joined the staff in June 2013 after serving as sports editor of the Daily Mississippian. Follow him on Twitter @austinkmiller
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