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Women’s freestyle makes emotional global return as Lia Lewis lands stunning Red Bull Street Style upset

11:00 PM GMT+8 22/11/2021
Lia Lewis Red Bull freestyle final
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, travel restrictions did not limit the pool of competitors, leading to an poignant day in Valencia

There had been very little freedom in women’s football freestyle until this past weekend.

As the Covid-19 pandemic prevented official showcase competitions for a year-and-a-half, expansive stages surrounded by enthusiastic crowds were swapped for close-quarters individual exercises in garages, backyards and small gyms.

Even this autumn, as almost every other sport returned to full action around them, women freestylers outside of Europe waited for their own professional lives to return to normal due to travel restrictions. The itch to perform and publicly express oneself grew overwhelming. In some cases, mental health suffered.

So, the Red Bull Street Style 2021 championship on Saturday, won by Great Britain star Lia Lewis, marked a grand return for global freestyling that saw emotions spill free.

Three of the top four finishers broke down after their final rounds.

Lewis, the 24-year-old underdog title winner, described through tears her shock at the accomplishment. The victory, by unanimous judge decision, was absolutely deserved; her body contortions while keeping the ball in the air lit up the showcase, with her fluid flips from upside-down juggling to upright position particularly breathtaking.

“[This means] so much, like it’s been every day, five hours preparing for this competition. No breaks,” Lewis said on-stage after her triumph. “It has been really hard for me. I can't believe it. I just can't believe this is real right now.

“If I’m honest, I just wanted to get to the semi-final. I didn't even like, plan anything at all. So I can't believe it, this is a dream. I'm trying not to swear right now!"

Lewis, the breakout participant, was not the only one who felt overwhelmed with the women's freestyling world coming back to major in-person competition.

Top United States women’s freestyler Caitlyn Schrepfer earned a third-place finish by ousting Melody Donchet of France - the only person to have captured at least three Red Bull Street Style titles. It is expected that this was the last competitive appearance of Donchet’s career.

Schrepfer and Donchet cried as they hugged following their battle.

For Schrepfer, it was always going to be an emotional day as she overcame the difficulties of the past two years, and the Donchet sub-plot simply added to those feelings.

“The [pandemic] has thrown into perspective the really odd relationship that I have with freestyle,” she told GOAL. “Especially over the course of the entire quarantine, because freestyle was one of the only ways I was kind of able to retain my sanity, throughout all of this being stuck at home for so long.

"I would train in my garage every day. My training spot went from being at a gym that I would travel to and kind of mentally prepare for, to downstairs just within reach. And while I enjoyed the convenience of it, it really created this sort of weird relationship with like, I was almost dependent on freestyle.

"And it allowed for a lot of time for me to train and to experiment and things like that, which I'm so grateful for. But it also kind of made me feel overly dependent on it in that, you know, I had to go train, I had to do this. And you know, that's not necessarily an enjoyable feeling. So there were times when I kind of almost resented it.”

Schrepfer, like so many people during the pandemic - freestylers included - said she looked for hobbies outside her "mad genius lab" to find creative inspiration. With that balance, she said she has come out a more complete person.

It was all business, though, as FIFA Street-style music blared and spectators gathered around in Valencia on Saturday.

The reactions from almost everyone involved demonstrated how much being back in a sanctuary for football artistry resonated with competitors.

“It means the world to me,” Lewis said. “That’s why I train so hard every day, all the time, to get to this moment.”