The room falls silent as a group of six teenaged girls and their coach extend rubber strings and balance on exercise balls. They cast determined expressions over their shoulders and teeter slightly before regaining equilibrium. Then, there’s a unison release and a chorus of strings snapping.

“I just slapped myself,” one girl jokes over the noise.

Classes typically begin like this at Archery Excellence in Independence. Students do breathing exercises, stretch and even receive instruction to “walk like a turtle.” Sometimes, they fall off their exercise balls and erupt in laughter. These warm-ups, while seemingly random, teach the girls lessons they soon take to the range: core strength, flexibility and – above all – the ability to have fun and be disciplined at the same time.

As 18-year-old Mariah Arrocha steps onto the range and loads her bow, her eyes narrow and she squints at her target. Yet her smile grows wider.

“It’s very relaxing,” Arrocha says of archery, which she’s been practicing since the age of 6. “If I’ve been at school all day and have to do homework, coming here is my happy place. I can forget about everything else.”

Arrocha’s passion for the sport has led to her competing in local tournaments and instructing students of her own at an archery camp. It’s also inspired some of her closest friendships.

In spite of these relationships, Arrocha sees archery as a deeply personal sport.

“You can compete with yourself and not just against others,” she explained. “You can always better yourself.”

This perspective helps Arrocha set ambitious goals. In the future, she’d like to advance to local competitions and become a member of USA Archery, with the Olympics as an ultimate dream.

Arrocha’s classmate Natalie Wiencek also keeps her gaze forward.

“I want to keep doing archery for a really long time,” 13-year-old Wiencek said as she stepped away from her lane and took a slug of water. “I want to take it to the next level.”

For Wiencek, participation in the sport comes with a slew of questions. She says people usually ask how good she is, if she can hit a bull’s-eye and, of course, what drew her to the pastime in the first place.

She remembers participating in an archery session at Girl Scouts camp. She can’t recall what she first loved about it – only that she’s been pursuing it ever since.

Coach Melinda Hawley can identify with this. She describes “accidentally” falling into coaching after her husband taught her how. At the time, the couple would visit Bass Pro Shops in Springfield because there were no archery facilities in the area.

After Hawley began teaching her sons and got requests from other parents, she took it on professionally.

“My dad grew up in an era where men didn’t take their daughters hunting, but I always thought it would be fun,” Hawley said.

Now, she guides the all-girls Junior Olympics, a league Arrocha says makes her feel confident. Hawley counts seeing this confidence progress as one of her job’s highlights.

“It’s rewarding,” Hawley stated. “By the end of the session, most of them have more confidence, better focus, better endurance, better patience and they have calmer personalities.”