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MISSOULA — From her strawberry blonde braid to the soles of the snow boots she relies on for hoofing and hunting, Abby Donald is a Montana marvel.

She may not fit into someone's stereotype of the typical Missoula Hellgate female athlete. That's OK though, because she never really tried.

"I shoot guns for a sport and I go out hunting," she says proudly. "Living in Montana it's more common you see girls hunting and girls in the sport of rifle. I guess I was interpreted as boyish by some people, but that's OK with me."

Donald's marksmanship is more than just a handy hunting skill. Years of honing her skills with the non-school-affiliated Hellgate Junior Rifle Team have netted her a partial scholarship at Tennessee-Martin, where she will compete for the precision rifle team in 2018-19.

How does one set oneself apart in this sport?

Abby will tell you her eyesight is not exactly exceptional. Her mental toughness, on the other hand, has been a strength for a while. Like the time when, at the tender age of 14, she bagged a bull elk while hunting with her father in trying conditions near Lewiston, Idaho.

"I remember I was hiking up and down mountains in negative-15 weather plus wind chill," she shared. "A lot of things went wrong on the trip — getting stuck in mud and some camper issues where pipes were freezing.

"It was a really long week but it turned out really successful."

Donald has been somewhat of a prodigy since she was 10 and earned a berth at the National Junior Olympic Championships in air rifle. She credits her dad, John Donald, and her older siblings with helping her catch shooting fever when she was 8.

"Plus the shooting community is real nice," said Abby, who also plays lacrosse for the Hellgate Knights. "It's not like any other sport. Sure you may go to games and have fans. But your team becomes a family in shooting. It felt different than any other sport I've been in."

Donald is grateful for the camaraderie she shares with a core group of three other upperclassmen who have stayed together on the Hellgate Junior Rifle Team for many years. Likewise, she's grateful for the support of her coaches and the encouraging adults she encounters in her sport.

It takes a lot of practice and there are times when it's not always incredibly exciting. But Donald has developed into a student of the game.

"One of my coaches always told me that girls make better shooters, but I think he was just trying to make me feel better," she joked. "To shoot you have to be really dedicated and I just love it.

"It's a big mental game and physical game with balance and being able to stay in uncomfortable positions for a long time. You learn how to calm your heart rate down. You can feel your heartbeat in your positions so you learn how to control it or shoot in between heartbeats. You learn how to control your breathing."

All of which sounds pretty darn technical and a little nerve racking. But beyond the anxiety and joys of competition — Abby is taking aim at a Junior Olympic qualifier in Bozeman this weekend — there's so much more to shooting for Abby.

"It started out just as a fun thing to do and as I got older I realized this is what I could do for the rest of my life," she shared. "We'll be on the shooting line at matches and my coaches will be shooting next to me and some older men and women who have been doing it since they were my age.

"Everyone is so nice and welcoming."

Good luck, Abby. Tennessee-Martin's rifle team is going to get a crash course in Montana moxie this fall.

Email Bill Speltz at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @billspeltz.

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