NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 24 issue of CAROLINA: The Magazine, the official publication of Tar Heel athletics. Read the original article or read the entire Sept. 24 issue at no charge and be sure to get in the habit of reading CAROLINA every Tuesday.
by Amy Hoots
CHAPEL HILL - They both heard them.
The rumors, the exaggerations, the outright lies. "The team is run like an army." "You may win, but you'll hate it there." Former Carolina soccer players Brittani Bartok and Indi Cowie were recruited several years apart, but both heard the noise surrounding the Carolina women's soccer team. Both are now undergraduate assistant coaches for the Tar Heels.
It's not hard to imagine why a teenager might buy in to the myth. After all, to have a team with such unfathomable success, shouldn't there be whips and chains? Certainly, no one could be having fun amidst all that winning.
Except they are.
"Man, I just want to go on one trip with the women's soccer team." That's my husband speaking, a guy who has gone on every trip with the Carolina men's basketball team since 2001 and knows a good road trip when he sees it.
He's watching and enjoying a women's soccer YouTube video entitled "Invisiball." Players are in an airport passing time, participating in what appears to be a lively version of paddle ball. Except there is no ball. But the "paddles" make a deceptive noise every time they "hit" the ball that doesn't exist. Passersby stop to watch, or duck for cover. Somehow, the game gets competitive.
Team. Fun. Love. Family. That's the tagline behind Carolina women's soccer. The team's YouTube channel gives fans a behind-the-scenes look at why that motto is so appropriate.
Bartok is the face behind the camera and the one who almost didn't come. When she opened a UNC women's soccer Twitter account her sophomore year, her goal was to dispel the misconceptions. She was a player back then. She would take pictures, shoot videos, and sought to present women's soccer how it really was: successful and fun.
"It's not that much of an art. I just tweet what is, and show what is," said Bartok. Between Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, Bartok's desire to "show what is" has grown to become an integral piece of Carolina women's soccer.
After tearing her ACL during the 2010 season and struggling with ongoing health issues, Bartok and head coach Anson Dorrance decided it was in her best interest to end her playing career at Carolina. She was asked to become an undergraduate assistant coach in 2011, and she continued to do many of the things she was already doing for the team.
Despite her insistence that what she produces is merely a reflection of the women's soccer program, her work is an art form, and Bartok does it well. Her good humor shows through with many of her tweets. While Bartok and the team were on the road last week, one tweet read, "750 wins have nothing on Tom Sander's 12,082 U-Turns and counting... #RecordThatWillNeverBeBroken #CarolinaChaos #CarSick."
In addition to her helping to shape the program's brand, Bartok keeps busy with day-to-day duties. She keeps the time during drills, but is convinced it's only because Dorrance likes to call her "bar clock." "He thinks it's funny," Bartok said.
Clearly, the head coach also has a great sense of humor, and that contributes to the easy-going atmosphere of the team. Although Dorrance himself is not on Twitter, he sees the value of Bartok's social media contributions. It helps with recruiting, public relations, and changes the impression that Dorrance and his staff are operating in an oppressive environment. "That is certainly promoted by our rivals who need to spin their own mediocrity as a weapon against our success," said Dorrance.
Eighteen-year-old Cowie is also an undergraduate assistant coach. Like Bartok, Cowie also tore her ACL, and the injury was one factor that led to her decision to end her playing career.
But she's not hanging up her cleats. Cowie is the World Freestyle Soccer Champion and, since she is no longer a student-athlete, NCAA rules and regulations no longer prevent her from pursuing her professional career as a freestyler.
Like Bartok, Cowie's gift is also an art form. Freestyling is a display of acrobatic tricks and athletic moves performed with a soccer ball. Cowie has been featured on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Good Morning America, and performs in front of massive crowds.
That part is a little scary for Cowie. Her talent lends itself to extreme showmanship, but Cowie is more comfortable in her sanctuary-the Rams Head parking garage on campus, where she spends hours with the ball early in the morning.
In many ways, Cowie is a bit of a contradiction. She calls herself a morning person, but also a night owl. She'll go to bed as late as 1 a.m. many nights and wakes up each morning at 4:30 a.m. to train. By the time most college kids are hitting their snooze buttons for the first time, there's a good chance Cowie has already put in three hours of ball work.
Watch her perform for just a few seconds and you won't believe that she calls herself "the clumsiest person you will ever meet." Cowie recalls a performance in which she tripped as she stood up to walk to the stage, but then performed gracefully and flawlessly in front of an audience of thousands. After the performance, she fell on her way back to her seat.
Cowie had the complete support of coaches when she made her decision to end her playing career. Dorrance saw value in her continued involvement with the program and believes his players can learn a great deal about dedication and ball work from Cowie. "The time she spends with the ball is demonstrated in her remarkable array of skills. We'd love for every girl in our program to have that kind of attitude towards the ball and towards the game," said the head coach. "We have some amazing athletes with a skill set that is average and we know if they spent the kind of time the Indi does with the ball, their game could go to a completely different level."
I had plans of meeting both Cowie and Bartok together for an interview last week. Bartok phoned me to cancel due to an illness. "I feel so terrible," she kept repeating. It took me a few moments to realize she wasn't talking about her health, but about having to cancel.
Up to that point, I knew her only from her online presence and had tremendous respect for her humor and wit. But her genuine kindness and concern for the inconvenience she may be causing me was a bit of a surprise. "She's hilarious, but she's also very compassionate," Cowie will tell you.
My meeting with Cowie was also delayed. She needed to get an MRI because she fell off her longboard (a counterpart of a skateboard) in the middle of the intersection in front of the Carolina Inn. Thankfully, the prognosis was good and Cowie was relieved to find she would not need surgery on her knee and should return to practicing in the parking deck in a few weeks.
"I feel partially responsible," said Bartok, fellow long boarder, who did nothing to discourage Cowie's risky hobby, despite having full knowledge of her affinity for falling down.
Cowie and Bartok live together-in the same room. A large space on the third floor of a house on Columbia Street is where they call home. "It's like a big sister and little sister living together," said Bartok. "With Brittani, there's never a dull moment," laughed Cowie.
It's not hard to imagine that the freestyling champion of the world and the brain behind the brand of Carolina women's soccer may provide some amusement.
Team. Love. Fun. Family.
Cowie and Bartok are glad to be part of it.