Jennifer Delaney was out of town when the life-changing letter arrived. It was the middle of May, and her boyfriend, Justin Horsley, texted her a picture of the envelope. Within a minute, she FaceTimed, instructing him to open it on camera. He asked: “Are you sure?”
She was sure. Two months earlier, Delaney had been tipped off about a trick-shot challenge sponsored by Planters peanuts. The prize was a college scholarship. Delaney, a thirty-year-old mergers-and-acquisitions consultant at the accounting firm PwC, was still paying off the MBA she’d received from SMU in 2018. She perused the contest’s fine print and discovered she could use the winnings to cover her student loans. The next day, she went to the grocery store and bought a few tins of peanuts. Then she propped them up on a table in her backyard in Colleyville, grabbed her bow and arrows from the garage, and set her GoPro to record.
In the video, she smiles, holding a peanut between her fingers, before turning her back to the camera. Then, in one fluid motion, she tosses the peanut up in the air in an arc, lifts her hand to the bow, draws the arrow back and fires it. The arrow explodes the peanut into dust before piercing the target. Then she grabs another peanut from the jar, tosses it in the air and catches it in her mouth as she walks off camera.
In terms of views, this video was not one of Delaney’s greatest hits. On her TikTok account, @freedomandfeathers, she’s posted almost two hundred clips in the past year. Ten have accumulated more than a million views. An almost identical video, with a lifesaver substituted for a peanut, has 27.8 million views by itself. Her account recently crossed one million followers, a milestone she celebrated by posting a highlight reel of some of her favorite shots. There she was, threading an arrow through six axe handles in homage to the impossible Odysseus shot and breaking the heart of a queen playing card.
But in terms of cold, hard cash, the $50,000 Planters payout was by far her biggest windfall. She makes between $3,000 and $5,000 a month through TikTok’s Creator Fund and from occasional sponsorships, but she spends almost the same amount on archery supplies, from the arrows to the targets she splits, snaps, and disintegrates with them. For Delaney, Freedom and Feathers has never been about money or social-media celebrity. The account started as something simpler and more substantive than that: it was a reminder that she didn’t need anyone’s permission to pursue the hobbies that made her happy. To her massive audience, the account is a series of incredible athletic feats. To her, it’s a way to reclaim control of her life.
“One day, I woke up and I realized that I didn’t have any interests,” she says. “I was doing the same thing every day: working, taking care of my house, reading, going to bed. Day in, day out, nothing changed. I didn’t want to just go through the motions. I wanted to love every day. I wanted to live.”
Delaney grew up in the jungle. At least, that’s what she and her sister, Morgan Peterson, called the acre and a half on the outskirts of Dallas where their dad lived. Behind the suburban backyard with the pool and the grill was a forest with a creek running through it, where the sisters would chase each other and splash around and collect minnows. Their dad, Jerry, would join them back there on weekends. If he found a large branch that had fallen from a tree, he’d file it down and tie a rope to it. That’s how Delaney got her first bow.
Sometimes, Jerry would stick a target to a haystack and let the girls take aim. But most of the time, they roamed free. One day, Delaney tied a string to an arrow and shot it over a low-hanging tree limb. She tied one end to a purple crate she normally used to store school supplies, and she set a carrot down under the dangling, makeshift cage and waited. When a rabbit hopped over, she tried to trap it, but it scurried away. “Even when I was younger, very simple things brought me joy,” she jokes. “If there was any chance for pointy objects or machine-like things that go pow, I was in.”
Delaney’s parents divorced when she was eight, and her mother married Rick Fogle, the owner of a business that manufactured satellite- and rocket-tracking equipment. Fogle found a way to live his entire life at a high altitude—he’s been skydiving more than two hundred times—and Delaney warmed quickly to her adventurous stepfather. She credits him with helping her learn two important lessons about herself. The first was that she was an introvert. He was, too, and he showed her how hobbies—like, for example, flinging yourself out of airplanes—can help you find fulfilling alone time. The second was that she liked to use her hands. She worked for Rick at his company one summer in high school, and he remembers her to this day as one of his most meticulous employees ever.
“There was a time when I thought the only sports I could do were soccer, gymnastics, and cheerleading,” Delaney says. “I tried them all, and I liked them, but my heart was never in it. I only did those because that’s what girls did. When my mom and Rick got married, it was like this other world opened.”
Still, Delaney found herself pulled back to what she thought was the standard playbook for life. She went to college; pledged a sorority. In 2015, at the age of 24, she married her high-school sweetheart. She bought a house and devoted much of her time and energy to decorating it. But she wasn’t happy. And later that year, when she discovered her husband’s affair, she divorced him. At the time, she was living in Virginia, and she used grad school at SMU as an excuse to move home to Texas. The end of her marriage became a signpost in Delaney’s life—an opportunity to remind herself of who she was and what she really loved.
“There’s this golden road that we’re told we’re supposed to follow: go to college, have a career, get married, have a family,” Peterson says. “It’s almost like a rule book. Not many people—and especially not many women—feel permission to stray off the path.”
Back home in Texas, Delaney met Fogle once a week at a shooting range called Elm Fork. She’d taken riflery at summer camp, but she’d never done any serious shooting as an adult. And yet, inside of a year, she was outgunning Fogle on long-range target practice with an AR-15 and on steel-plate pulls with a 9mm Glock. He even gave her a handgun for Christmas. Even if she’d been to the range on her lunch break, she’d come home and do penny drills at night. With her gun unloaded, she’d place the penny on her front sight and then pull the trigger without letting the coin fall to the ground.
One week, she showed up to Elm Fork with a bow and walked Fogle down to a part of the property he hadn’t noticed in thirty years of shooting there. Under a forest canopy, there was an archery range. From then on, she’d spend an hour shooting guns with Fogle before switching her weapon and heading right back out onto the range.
Right away, she realized that archery was more than just a hobby. It quickly came to consume nearly all of her free time. She never took formal lessons, but she devoured hours and hours of YouTube videos and read books by masters like Byron Ferguson, who once shot eight dimes out of the air in eight consecutive shots. Archery, she discovered, was the perfect pastime for an introvert who liked to use her hands. When she was on the range, she’d turn off her phone and enjoy the feeling of stretching that string and letting the arrow whistle through the air until it slammed into the target.
“It engaged another part of my brain that I wasn’t able to use during the day,” she says. “It’s this strange combination of physical and mental exercise. You use your muscles and your zen. Hearing the twang of the bow and the feeling of getting a bullseye? There’s nothing like it.”
Delaney discovered that no matter how many hours a week she dedicated to archery, it was never enough. First she practiced once a week, on lunch breaks with Fogle. Then it was every day at lunch. Then it was all day on Saturdays. Then Sundays, too. She found in archery what she had been searching for back in Virginia: with a bow in her left hand and the arrow pressed against her cheek, she felt serenity and exhilaration all at once. She wasn’t just passing the time. She was shooting it.
“How many are willing to pick up a new sport at the age of twenty-eight and say, ‘I don’t care what people think about it. This is what makes me happy’?” says Peterson. “Jen was brave enough to do that for herself.”
On a monthly Zoom meeting last summer, a couple PwC employees prepared a short presentation on TikTok, as the new social media platform was sweeping the United States. Then they played a video of a woman piercing a tennis ball midair with a bow and arrow. On Zoom, people unmuted themselves and wondered aloud: “Was that Jennifer?”
Delaney’s first foray into social media as Freedom and Feathers was on Instagram in 2018. The account’s content was always archery-heavy, but it also documented her other hobbies like shooting guns, throwing knives, and country dancing. Her online audience grew steadily over the next two years, reaching a respectable five-figure follower count. But when Delaney joined TikTok in May 2020, she was stunned to see how rapidly her account gained steam. The twentieth video she posted got 7 million views. In just a few weeks, her TikTok following surpassed her Instagram one. And she was making money, too, with sponsored videos pushing her to get ever more creative with the shots she was filming. She has pierced ping-pong balls, Mentos candies, Diet Coke cans, cherry tomatoes, and grains of rice. She has used an arrow to blow out a candle, to light a match, to open a champagne bottle, and to turn a windmill. She’s even shot an apple off someone’s head (the someone was a dummy, though).
Trick shots require a different set of skills than the kind of archery that you see at the Olympics, where South Korea’s An San just took home gold. Olympic archers shoot from seventy meters, whereas Delaney sometimes shoots from just a few feet away. Olympic contests are designed to measure consistency. Delaney and other trick-shot archers are more about creativity. For Delaney, half the fun is dreaming up, designing, and constructing the complex targets she features in her videos. And although Olympians are transparently talented, their skills don’t translate as well to the internet. The top American female archer, Mackenzie Brown, who finished fourth in Tokyo, has just over 10,000 followers on Instagram and no presence on TikTok.
For Delaney, trick shots became such an important aspect of her life that, when she and Horsley decided to buy a house together, her only requirement was a big backyard. “Wood floors; updated appliances?” she says. “I didn’t care about any of that.” Along with Horsley, who worked as a carpenter in college, the couple bought stacks of wholesale foam padding and constructed the black backstop that’s featured in all her videos. They also hung a net over the back fence to prevent stray arrows from ending up in the neighbor’s lawn (or worse).
As her commitment to the sport grew, archery stretched into all corners of her life. Her job at PwC regularly requires fourteen-hour days. But while working from home, if she has even thirty minutes of free time between client calls, she’ll head to the backyard with her bow. On weekends, she’s outside tearing up targets from sunup to sunset. Her gear has overtaken half the garage and an entire shed in the yard. And she’s made archers out of several family members—including her baby niece. When Delaney visited Peterson in Arkansas a couple of months ago to meet little Lila, she brought her a plastic bow-and-arrow set for kids. “When she’s old enough for the bow and arrow, I’m all for it,” Peterson jokes. “But I will draw the line at knives.”
Thanks to social-media stardom, Delaney’s hobby has become more like a second job. Early this year, she tore her ACL (while attempting a trick shot in the rain), but put off surgery for a month so she’d have time to record eight new trick shots—enough for one post per week during the post-op period when she wouldn’t be able to stand unsupported. While recovering from surgery at home, she tried to sneak out and shoot from a chair, but Horsley caught her dragging the seat out of the dining room. Since she’s gotten back on her feet, she’s been shooting with a knee brace, but that hasn’t slowed her output at all. Earlier this month, she shot at a CD after flipping it in the air like a coin. The arrow passed through the center hole of the disc, which didn’t shatter, but instead continued to turn over until it touched the ground.
As a TikTok creator, she has to balance what her followers want from her archery—smaller targets . . . longer shots . . . explosions!—with what she wants from it. “Archery is her escape,” says her mother, Linda Fogle. “It’s her therapy.”
Last week, feeling stressed and uninspired, she thought about taking a day off from shooting. Instead, she decided to return to the basics. She kept the cameras off and put up a simple paper target. “Being out there for a half an hour,” she says, “was the best part of my day.” That afternoon, she paid extra attention to the twang of the bow; to the way the arrow punctured the paper. Her TikTok bio says she was terrible at yoga, so she took up archery. The truth is that archery centers her more than meditation does. For Delaney, the feeling of the sun on her brow, the wind on her skin, and the bow in her hand—that’s freedom.