The steady thumps of arrows hitting the back wall echo throughout Texas Archery Academy. All along the firing line, aspiring archers steady their bows and fix their eyes on the target (for now, a wall with circles on it).
"Focus," the instructor calls out as the archers square their hips and shoulders and settle into a loose lunge. They pull their strings taut, bows wobbling a bit. The instructor tells them to take a breath, aim and release.
One by one, dull-tipped arrows fly, cutting through the foam wall.
Dang, I missed! Yes, I nailed it!
As a group, they each reach for another arrow and set up again. I know I can do better.
Archery is addictive like that. It demands total focus. It forces you to block out the collateral noise and clutter in your daily life and concentrate on one sharply defined and attainable goal.
For many people, archery is more than a popular Olympic sport or the chosen form of defense for Hollywood's "it" heroines. Nearly 10,000 years after it was discovered, archery has become a form of therapy.
"Thirty minutes and it totally relaxes you," says Rhonda Wallace, owner of Smithfield Archery in Fort Worth, where more and more people are showing up these days to practice and decompress.
I heard that mantra repeated again and again by archers at all levels: It's relaxing. It's therapeutic. And though there is much emphasis placed on the team aspects of the sport, and togetherness, there's also something primal about the solitary nature of archery.
Yes, the bows have become more sophisticated (they can cost upward of $1,000), but archery is still about that distance between the archer and her target. It's about aim. It's about channeling frustration or anticipation into one moment when the arrow and the archer are one.
And it's about control: controlling the bow, controlling your mind. When all those things work in harmony, the victory, the kill, isn't met with a loud bang or cheers or fist pumps but a quiet thud and sly smile.
Archery, you see, is a zen sport. The true archer is alone and at peace.
Perhaps that's why the medieval sport has such modern appeal. The wild success of The Hunger Games book and movie franchise, which follows bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine Katniss Everdeen, has compelled more and more North Texans to take aim with arrows and let fly.
But the heat-seeking trend doesn't start and end there. This summer, we met another girl who was great with a bow: Merida, the defiant princess in Disney Pixar's Brave. And this fall, two new TV series have a few sharp ones in their quiver: The CW's Arrow is based on the popular DC Comics character Green Arrow, and NBC's Revolution is a J.J. Abrams creation that follows a group of bow-wielding heroes in a postapocalyptic world.
And, of course, let's not forget reality: During the first few days of its Olympic coverage, NBC announced that archery was the most popular sport of any that it aired on its cable networks -- bigger even than basketball, according to an Associated Press story. Archery averaged 1.5 million TV viewers.
So even if an archery range in Plano is a world away from the London games, the attraction is much the same.
When an instructor at Texas Archery Academy attaches a paper zombie to a cable line and dangles it in front of the archers, they can't help but zero in on the target. Thirteen-year-old Katelyn Guidry, whose family just moved to North Texas from Houston, didn't want to come on this night -- it was her little brother's idea. But now that she's here, she's ready to put a hurt on that zombie.
She aims and fires, and grunts when her arrow misses the mark. She reloads, and waits for the target to make its way back to her.
This time she smiles as the arrow zips through the zombie's heart.
A lot of what has made archery so popular these days, especially to girls, are the independent characters such as Katniss and Merida. They are the new Robin Hoods.
Bow girls aren't just pretty puffs with good aim. They're smart, skilled young women and they have something to say, and their arrows and daring speak volumes.
It's these heroines young Myranda Peterson has in mind as she shoots arrow after arrow at a target on the back wall a few stalls down from Katelyn's beginner class, where the tattered zombie has now been retired. Katelyn and her classmates are blowing up balloons to use as their next targets.
Myranda is at another level. Clad in shorts, flip-flops and a pumpkin-orange shirt, the 12-year-old from Rowlett loves The Hunger Games and so do her friends. The movie renewed her interest in archery, and just a few months into training, she has one goal in mind: "I want to make it to the Olympics," she says. That will require thousands of hours of practice, private lessons and making it through puberty, her coach, Barry Warren, says. He has seen many archers lose interest when hormones surge, especially girls.
For now, Myranda has a different type of bow in mind. "It's all a bit intimidating," she says, referring to the next five years of dedicated practice. But with each try, with each arrow, she's gaining a new confidence. "I've proven to myself that I can do it before."
And on days when she doesn't have the energy to practice, she just pretends the target is someone who irritates her. For some archers, that's what makes the sport appealing: the release. No matter how bad your day was, you can always shoot off a few arrows and maybe pretend the target in front of you is your annoying boss with his stupid deadlines and stupider e-mails about deadlines. Aim. Release. Bull's-eye. Take that, Mr. Deadlines!
Clint Montgomery, executive director of Texas Archery Academy, contends that "archery has always been popular," but his organization is trying to build on the archery-is-cool movement by opening public facilities like this one in Plano, where leftover putting greens, metal racks and supply material delineate safe areas outside of firing zones. This space was previously used by the PGA pro store next door but now serves as the indoor training facility for the academy, which also has outdoor training facilities at parks in Dallas and Lewisville.
Texas Archery Academy opened its doors just last year and sees from 2,000 to 3,000 students per month. It is the one of the largest mixed-use indoor archery ranges in North Texas. Most public ranges are small, underadvertised and almost exclusively the domain of serious hunters like the men gathered in the shooting area one bay down from Myranda.
The hunters are practicing for bow season, which opens in October in Texas, and these guys aren't after paper zombies or balloons. They want white-tailed deer and turkey for dinner. And their arrows slice with deadly precision.
"What we have done has made archery accessible to the public," says Montgomery. The academy offers beginners' classes, birthday parties, private lessons and practice space for hunters. With annual family memberships of $120, archery is an affordable adventure option.
Serious hunters and competitors, though, can spend thousands on equipment.
Montgomery and supporters want to put archery ranges staffed with certified instructors in public and municipal parks across the state, and there is a movement to encourage public schools to include archery in athletic programs. The goal is to train more than a million archers.
"The firing line is the great equalizer," says Montgomery. Race, religion, creed or color, everyone is the same when they take aim, and by including archery in schools, parks and churches across Texas, everyone can participate. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who doesn't want to try it," he says.
Back at the beginners' class, Carolyn Cooper of Dallas couldn't resist trying archery either. She brought her two sons, and they talked her into trying it as well. A little unsteady at first, she got the hang of it after awhile. "This is fun," Cooper said as she pulled her bow taught. "It's great that's it's for all ages." Thump!