It's OK if you've never heard of freestyle football. Caitlyn Schrepfer is the second-best female freestyler in the world, but until she was 16 or 17, it wasn't on her radar either.
Let's first establish that we're not referring to American football (pads, helmets, touchdowns, tackles), but about the international version of football, aka soccer. That's where Caitlyn started. "I grew up my whole life playing soccer, since I was about four years old," she told POPSUGAR. That is, along with, casually, eight other sports: basketball, swimming, tennis ("which I was terrible at"), cross country, color guard, dance (ballet and jazz), cheerleading, and gymnastics. "I was very busy," Caitlyn said.
About six years ago, she went to a local soccer convention and happened to catch a few freestyle footballers doing tricks. "The minute I saw it, I was hooked," she remembered. "It was the most visually interesting thing I'd ever seen."
Freestyle football could be called an extreme version of "juggling" in soccer: keeping the ball off the ground as long as possible by popping it back and forth between your feet, legs, chest, or head. In competition, freestyle footballers face off in two-person battles, where their tricks are scored based on criteria such as originality, difficulty, and the quality and cleanness of their execution.
As the second-best female freestyler in the world (and the number one-ranked American), Caitlyn's tricks are best described as jaw-dropping. Many freestylers come from a dance or B-boy background, she told POPSUGAR, but Caitlyn, 22, takes a lot of inspiration from rhythmic gymnastics and her own experiences as a gymnast growing up. Her signature move is a backbend performed with the ball cinched between her neck and back. She's the only person in the world, as far as we know, who can do it.
Caitlyn posts clips and tricks on her Instagram, and they're mesmerizing to watch: not just backbends but handsprings and handstands, with the ball flowing fluidly around her body. Like the best athletes, she makes her sport look both beautiful and easy in a way that belies the relentless work that goes into it. Caitlyn practices tricks for anywhere from three to eight hours a day, she said, and logs in extra strength and cardio workouts up to five times a week. That grind coupled with the pressure to perform and succeed is enormous. It would be all too easy, Caitlyn said, to lose the freedom and creativity that made her fall in love with freestyling in the first place.
But despite the pressure and, at times, the frustration, her initial love and passion for the sport remain. "Every single time I imagine walking away from it, I can't even picture up my life would be like without it," Caitlyn admitted. And maybe the craziest part of her improbable career is that, on her soccer team, Caitlyn was a goalie: the one position that doesn't completely rely on footwork and ball control skills. She discovered freestyle football at a serendipitous time, when a hip flexor injury left her nothing to do but juggle. Within three months, her juggling record (counting the touches on the ball before it hits the ground) had shot from 20 to 3,500 — and it only stopped there because she gave up counting. "It got very boring," she laughed.
With the sport's world championships, the Red Bull Street Style World Final, on the horizon in November, Caitlyn's goal is simple: after two years of being ranked second-best, she wants to win. That hunger for success and her admittedly "obsessive" love for the sport are what drives her. But what she's discovered along the way is her own power to be an inspiration for others. She's seen firsthand what representation on a global stage can do; what kind of impact it can have; how "having someone that looks like you" can motivate kids to go out for a sport that they never would've tried otherwise. Some of the greatest moments in her career have been those interactions: namely, kids who thanked her for inspiring them to try something new.
"I'm able to have an impact just from doing what I love and encouraging others to do what they love, regardless of any social stigma," Caitlyn said. "I was lucky enough to never have to deal with that too much during my life. I've talked to people who have, and knowing that I'm able to affect that in even the smallest way is just the greatest feeling."