Samantha Simonton shot her first deer a month before she was 8 — in part because she wanted to “beat” a buddy of hers who had killed his first deer when he was 8.
“When I first picked up a shotgun, I hated it. I hated it because I sucked at it,” she said bluntly.
In May she will seek to qualify for the final spot on the U.S. shooting team at Olympic Trials.
Simonton is a junior at Lakeview Academy. She will shoot this week in Nicosia, Cyprus, at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup Shotgun to add more points toward her Olympic team qualification score.
She also will compete at the ISSF Junior World Cup rifle, pistol, shotgun in Suhl, Germany, in late April.
Simonton is one of three girls on the U.S. team for the event. She ranks No. 2 among the junior girls in the country.
“I’ve always liked challenges. I’ve always wanted to be the best I can be,” she said calmly. “I want to be my own boss. I want to call my own shots.”
Simonton has been the Georgia girls’ state champion in skeet shooting for three straight years.
At the Georgia Independent School Association state championships in Savannah this past fall, she was the highest overall girl scorer and state champion in skeet, sporting clays and trap shooting. She also was first team all-state.
She plans to attend the University of Georgia after high school and become a surgeon.
Her parents, Mary Alice and Fred Simonton, are an anesthetist and surgeon, respectively.
She began shooting international skeet in January 2015.
The international skeet competition is “almost twice as fast” as American skeet, Simonton said.
“It’s a whole lot harder,” she said.
Competitors start with the gun low and may have up to a three-second delay from the time they call “pull” until the target comes out.
The height above sea level, the wind and rain can all be factors. She noted Colorado Springs, Colo., is 9,000 feet above sea level. Watkinsville, where she practices regularly, is about 900 feet.
She expects to be the youngest competitor at the Olympic Trials — she was 16 in December and is preparing for her driver’s license test this week.
She said one girl is six months older, but she has been competing for five years.
Simonton said she recognizes the odds are long she will make the Olympic team.
“It’s slim to none that I’ll make the Olympic team, but the fact that I’m that close...” Samantha said. “2020 is my goal. That’s what I’ve written down.”
In international competition, she shoots three rounds of 25 targets each — a total of 75.
“I shot a 71 yesterday,” Simonton said, “in the wind.”
At the Olympic Trials, which will be in Tiller, Ark., she explained competitors will shoot two rounds — each 125 targets.
Samantha practices in Watkinsville, where her family has set up a range.
She also trains with Craig Hancock at Hancock Shooting Academy, outside Eatonton. He is the father of Vince Hancock, two-time men’s Olympic champion.
She shoots in Eatonton nearly every weekend, she said.
She said she shoots “at least” a case of shells a day — about 10 rounds.
“It’s kind of like shooting free throws — get your reps in,” she said.
In addition to traveling to Europe, Simonton covered much of the U.S. in the summer of 2015. She said she was in 26 states.
“I came home four days,” she said.
Simonton said shooting is mostly mental.
“Anybody can lift a 7-pound gun hundreds of times a day,” she said.
Focusing on the process is the critical part, she said.
She said she can see the target spin — “I can count the ridges on it.”
Simonton said, “I just get intense and everything else goes away.”