Real-life Princess Merida
is an Archery Coach and
Mermaid Real-life Princess Merida is an Archery Coach and Mermaid

Virginia Hankins is a warrior, actress, mermaid, stuntwoman, professional knight and much more. But her ever-growing list of talents and the exciting career she enjoys today started at age 5 with one sport: archery.

Hankins first tried archery at camp in her childhood, but picked up the sport and shot competitively years later in college. Now she enjoys archery on many levels. She’s an archery coach, a stunt archery coordinator for the film industry, and a realistic impersonator of Princess Merida from “Brave.”

Hankins, who works at other events and children’s parties for Sheroes Entertainment LLC, periodically donates her time to children’s charities dressed as the character’s look-alike. She says Merida is her favorite character to play because kids get so excited to meet the spirited character. Her red hair makes playing Merida a natural fit, and she gets mistaken for the Disney Princess even when she’s not in costume.

Virginia Hankins often gets mistaken for Disney’s Princess Merida. Photo: Brian Lockerman

Virginia Hankins often gets mistaken for Disney’s Princess Merida. Photo: Brian Lockerman

“When I’m not dressed as Merida, kids still want to talk to me, especially when I’m wearing my hair down,” Hankins said. “She’s fun to play because she’s a rebel, but she encourages girls to try outdoor sports, and the archery in the movie was well done. When I convince people from Scotland that my accent is real, it’s an added bit of fun.”

What does the path look like for someone who goes from archery camp to collegiate archery, earns a degree in engineering, and becomes a sought-after archery coach and stuntwoman? Read on to find out.

Virginia Hankins discovered archery at age 5 when she attended YMCA camp and is now a sought-after archery coach. Photo: Brian Lockerman

Virginia Hankins discovered archery at age 5 when she attended YMCA camp and is now a sought-after archery coach. Photo: Brian Lockerman

How long have you been an archer?

I started archery with my dad when I was 5, and went to a summer YMCA camp that had archery and BB-gun ranges. I liked archery and had an eye for a target. At the time most summer camps didn’t offer archery, so I didn’t pick up the sport again until years later.

I also rode horses growing up, and was on the University of Southern California’s mascot team. The USC’s mascot is a real horse that charges down the football field during touchdowns. The mascot’s rider dressed in gorgeous Trojan armor, and worked with weapons on the field in front of crowds. I thought it was great and was interested in trying archery again.

Did you compete in archery?

Yes. During college my mom suggested I try archery at a range near home, so I did. John Norberg was the coach, and a lot of people my age were competing statewide and nationally. I fell in love with archery and wanted to compete because my friends were competing. A schoolmate and I co-founded the USC Archery Team, which was the school’s first team in about 20 years.

I competed in California and nationally in recurve. I became a horseback archer through the Society for Creative Anachronism and eventually got my hunter-safety certification in California. I’m also certified as a Level 2 coach by USA Archery and the National Field Archery Association. After college, I didn’t want to stop doing archery or medieval weaponry so I kept practicing. Soon, Hollywood knew I had the skills and an authentic wardrobe, and I started getting parts in productions.

Virginia Hankins’ stunt work includes acting as a mermaid and a knight, and riding motorcycles. ©Brenda Stumpf

Virginia Hankins’ stunt work includes acting as a mermaid and a knight, and riding motorcycles. ©Brenda Stumpf

How often to you shoot archery?

I coach 12 to 16 lessons each week, which cover four or five days.

What type of bow do you shoot?

I use the same competition recurve bow I shot in college. I got burned out on archery and took a couple years off, but I’m glad I kept my bow. I’ve always liked the style, poise and meditation aspects of shooting a recurve. On film or TV sets, I often use my compound bow. Sometimes I need to hold the bow at full draw while technicians check lighting, and I can hold a compound bow steady at full draw longer than if I was holding a recurve at full draw.

Have you coached any celebrities in archery or done stunts in mainstream movies?

I’ve coached celebrities and their children, and they have such a good time. As Joan of Arc on “Deadliest Warrior,” I was the only female warrior shooting a crossbow. I also worked on an episode of “Trophy Wife” that incorporated archery. Malin Akerman, guest star Dennis Haysbert and everyone was so kind. The cast and crew were respectful and very interested in archery. Three people from the cast and crew wanted to try archery after that. I’ve also done non-archery roles in “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “Mike and Molly.”

Virginia Hankins says her work as a mermaid is difficult, but rewarding. © Brenda Stumpf

Virginia Hankins says her work as a mermaid is difficult, but rewarding. © Brenda Stumpf

What’s your wildest stunt?

The work I do underwater as a mermaid is the most difficult but also the most rewarding. We do photo shoots about 20 feet underwater in the Pacific Ocean and the water is cold – about 68 to 72 degrees. I wear a costume and weights so I’m not fighting buoyancy and work without a dive mask. Two rescue divers are on standby with air tanks out of the frame of the camera, and we communicate using a modified version scuba sign language so I can talk to them even if I can’t see them.

What’s your dream role?

That’s a good question. I’d love to learn magic.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

I specialize in coaching women, children and new archers. I enjoy starting people off with the correct form, and have gotten many requests for archery clinics in California. The hard part is having enough time to coach everyone who is interested. To do classes, I need locations where I can set up. Public archery rangesare so packed that doing a group lesson or party often requires a three-month wait. Right now I’m working with the Girl Scouts to redesign their archery patch requirements so they can do archery adventure weekends, drills and learn the history of archery. But it’s a challenge for anyone to find places to practice, much less offer clinics.

Though the demand for archery clinics is high, Virginia Hankins says it’s a challenge to find archery ranges where she teach lessons. Photo: Brian Lockerman

Though the demand for archery clinics is high, Virginia Hankins says it’s a challenge to find archery ranges where she teach lessons. Photo: Brian Lockerman

What does it mean to be a modern lady knight?

I’m one of the few women who have completed all the sword, lance, archery, sword and horseback-riding requirements to be considered a knight. I perform as a medieval knight in shows, and have earned the Golden Lance designation, which is the top tier in the Society for Creative Anachronism for horse performers and coaches.

Do you bowhunt?

I’ve bowhunted once when a film crew presented me with an opportunity to hunt white-tailed deer and wild boar. It was wonderful.

What is the future of archery and/or bowhunting?

As people grow more eco-conscious and want antibiotic-free meat, I think hunting will become increasingly popular. I also think as people start realizing the role hunters play in maintaining wildlife, the more they’ll understand the importance of hunting. California’s hunter safety course is filled with information about the environment, wildlife, understanding hunting and much more. It was invaluable to me.

I expect to see increased interest in archery walking courses too. A lot of people are interested in 3-D walking courses because it looks fun.

To achieve photos like this, Virginia Hankins wears weights and works without a dive mask. ©Brenda Stumpf

To achieve photos like this, Virginia Hankins wears weights and works without a dive mask. ©Brenda Stumpf

What do most archers say at their first lesson?

I start new archers every week. Most of them think archery will be easier than it looks. Most people struggle with nocking the arrow the first time; they often get flustered. A lot of the women I coach say archery is addictive.

Many people have always been told they’re bad at sports, but they thrive at archery. They aren’t under pressure to be the biggest or the fastest, or to wear the prettiest tutu. They can relax and enjoy a sport for the first time in their life.

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