It's not a stretch to say that Indi Cowie is one of the best freestyle soccer performers on the planet. She has performed tricks at halftime of a Chelsea-Manchester United match in the English Premier League and been featured in commercials for Playstation video games. It's natural to assume that the 16-year-old is easily the best soccer player at Green Hope (N.C.) High, where she is a junior, but that assumption is misguided, for a simple reason: She won't play for the Green Hope team.
As chronicled most recently in the New York Times, Cowie has emerged as the best women's freestyle soccer performer in the world, all while still working on a high school degree in North Carolina. Of Scottish descent, Cowie has already competed for the women's branch of one of her home nation's two most famed clubs -- Glasgow Celtic -- and once scored seven goals in a youth game in which her team escaped with a 7-6 victory.
She speaks with a unique blend of typical American pronunciation with occasional hints of Scottish brogue, and has burst onto the freestyle soccer scene within the past six years, after being introduced to the sport by its reigning world champion and teaching herself a few basic moves.
Yet Cowie refuses to participate in that most American of high school experiences, school sports, because she is concerned that competing with only other girls might hold back her progress. The teenager has had to deal with similar dilemmas since she was much younger, referring to one incident when she was 10 as a particularly formative moment in her development.
"At the beginning of one game I got the ball and beat three girls to score a goal, and my coach pulled me off the field," Cowie told the Times. "He said, 'You should have passed.' I said, 'But I scored a goal, Coach.' He sat me out for the rest of the half. At halftime he asked me, 'Are you ready to play properly?' I said, 'Sure.' I did the same thing, and he took me off the field for the rest of the game."
Instead of fighting for school pride, Cowie works on her own soccer growth as part of a competitive boys club program in her hometown of Cary, N.C. And while one might assume shunning her school would hurt her college exposure, Cowie has already agreed to play college soccer for the University of North Carolina, the collegiate soccer juggernaut that helped develop American legends Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, among others.
For Cowie, the impetus to ignore high school soccer comes not only from the lack of competition she gets from other girls, but also from the insistence placed on playing the game in a cooperative, American way. Cowie often sees no need to pass or incorporate other teammates because she's simply better than them, and all the girls she plays against. Usually, she's right.
"Maybe that's why I like freestyle so much," Cowie says, "because I don't have any teammates to worry about."
So, is the selfish pursuit of freelance and traditional soccer perfection somehow an immoral pursuit? Is it un-American?
If it is either of those things, it also might be the path to greatness for a fabulous enigmatic talent who may someday have to choose between representing the U.S. or Scotland on the national level.
"All the great Tar Heels are incredibly self-motivated, and they thirst to score goals," Cowie's club coach Dewan Bader told the Times. "That's Indi, and I believe she has a chance to break boundaries in soccer the way she has in freestyle."