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Global Oct 25, 2013

The next chapter: Why freestyle phenom Indi Cowie shelved her NCAA career at UNC

With a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, appearances in commercials around the world and even praise from Lionel Messi, it wouldn’t have been hyperbole to call Indi Cowie one of the most intriguing prospects in women’s college soccer history when she joined the University of North Carolina last year.

But instead, she’ll have to settle for the title of the most talented student assistant coach in the country.

Rather than suiting up for North Carolina, Cowie will remain on the sideline as an assistant, having made the decision to retire from college soccer earlier this year.

That choice was set in motion last spring, when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament during an exhibition match. But before you start feeling sorry for Cowie or lamenting the loss of her college career, remember that she holds another title as well.

She’s one of the world’s best soccer freestylers.

“As I was getting back [from the knee injury], I made the decision to continue with my freestyle and go pro with that,” Cowie told SoccerWire this month. “It was a tough decision, but I’m super excited about all the opportunities that are coming up with my freestyle.”

And she should be.

Cowie’s list of accomplishments is already quite impressive as a college sophomore. Last year, she was named the FIFA Street World freestyle champion — an award that Messi judged personally. She also owns a Guinness World Record for most heel taps in a minute (102), and she has made a slew of appearances: from the Ellen Degeneres Show to Good Morning America to profiles in the New York Times and ESPN.

She has also performed during halftime of a Manchester United-Chelsea match and during Mia Hamm’s Celebrity Soccer Challenge in 2011, alongside NBA star Kobe Bryant, coaching icon Pep Guardiola and U.S. Women’s National Team star Alex Morgan.

[ +Indi Cowie, “most advanced female freestyler in the world,” lights up D.C. ]

With all that potential in the world of freestyle soccer, it should come as no surprise that Cowie’s ambitions ran head-first into the frustrating quagmire known as NCAA regulations.

The NCAA did classify freestyle soccer as a different sport, which gave Cowie some breathing room (similar to football players being allowed to compete in college after careers in other pro sports), but she still wasn’t allowed to use her name or image to promote herself.

Being that soccer freestylers have to rely heavily on promotion, Cowie wasn’t free to realize her full potential.

“There were some opportunities I had to turn down because they would conflict with NCAA rules,” Cowie said, citing an advertisement for Apple’s iPad as the biggest opportunity nixed by the NCAA. “It was kind of tough to take freestyle where I wanted to go.”

As a student assistant, she faces no such restrictions, and she’s free to turn her skills into a business, with options to run clinics, perform at any gig she likes and even sell merchandise. But before she could get that career off the ground, there was the matter of going through with her retirement.

And that meant a chat with legendary UNC coach Anson Dorrance.

“She was really nervous to come in and tell me what she wanted to do, and I could see the huge sense of relief on her face when she saw me absolutely embrace her idea,” Dorrance said. “This kid has the opportunity to be the best in the world in something. I don’t think there’s a coach in the world who is going to stand in the way of someone with that ambition.”

Dorrance had another idea as well, offering to have Cowie stay on as an assistant.

Since many aspects of freestyle revolve around numbers — think Cowie’s heel-tap record — Dorrance says she’s a natural fit for tracking a variety of stats during practice competitions.

+Join the crowd of 15,000-plus who follow Indi Cowie on Twitter ]

But he was thinking more of the big picture when he asked Cowie to stay on.

With 22 national championships and the most wins in college soccer history, Dorrance has seen lots of elite talent don Tar Heel blue, but Cowie had something he wanted to keep around.

“Even though Indi has some limitations — she’s not extraordinarily fast or incredibly quick — what she has is this incredible love for the ball and love for the game,” he said. “I have all kinds of players in my program who are incredibly fast and quick, but they just don’t love the ball and love the game like Indi does.

“Bringing Indi into my culture, I wanted Indi to rub off on all of these absolutely amazing athletes that we’re able to recruit in hopes that they would fall in love with the ball and the game.”

Once they do that, Dorrance said, “the world is their oyster.”

It was a win-win proposition. Cowie stays at UNC to work toward her degree and build her freestyle career, and the Tar Heels still get to utilize her talent, though she did have to give up her athletic scholarship.

It adds up to a busy schedule for the Cary, N.C., native, as she juggles school, coaching and, well, juggling.

She gets up around 4:45 a.m. and heads to a parking garage near her dormitory, giving her time for a couple of hours of freestyle practice before classes begin. After school, she’s off to help at UNC practice, and then much of the rest of her time is consumed with growing her freestyle business.

If the past is any indication, she’ll certainly find her way.

Her YouTube page boasts an array of videos showcasing her skills — including one with more than 1.5 million views — and she has already shown a flair for the big screen by acting in a Sony PlayStation commercial made for the Champions League. In it, she’s seen running downfield in a dress and nutmegging a defender.

Dorrance has no question about her abilities either.

He’s part of a family of performers (his wife is a former pro ballet dancer, his daughter is an internationally renowned tap dancer, and his son is a drummer in a band), and he said there’s no question that Cowie is a natural.

He saw the true impact she can have during one of UNC’s soccer camps, when he asked her to perform in front of the group.

“This time I decided not to look at Indi. I decided to look at the campers,” Dorrance said. “All of their jaws were dropping, and then in between sessions at the camp, I’m seeing all of these little kids trying to imitate what Indi was doing with the ball, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this kid is a pied piper.’”

That’s where Cowie’s goals move beyond personal challenges and an entrepreneurial spirit. She wants to bring freestyle more to the forefront in the U.S., and maybe even help boost the technical ability of young players in a country known more for its athleticism than its flair with the ball.

“Right now we are competing with the world as the rest of the world is catching up to the United States,” said Dorrance, who won the 1991 World Cup as head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team. “Places like Japan are ahead of us technically, and we need to inspire our young girls to master the ball so we can be relevant in the world arena.

“I think Indi Cowie is a part of that movement to make sure the American player loves the ball and loves the game.”

It would be a nice contribution for Cowie. Giving up college soccer meant giving up the chance at a whole lot more, and using her freestyle career to help inspire a few future stars might strike a balance between childhood dreams and her unique skill set.

“I grew up and had all those dreams of the Olympics, World Cup, national team — all of that,” she said. “So going to UNC, it was hard to stop, and I knew those dreams were something I wouldn’t be able to go forward with if I stopped playing. It was definitely tough, but I’m really happy with everything that is going on right now, and I’m really excited for the future.”

[ +Cowie’s official website can be found here ]