25 Nov Ten years in the US, Football Ferns Katie Bowen is still Kiwi as
Even after 75 internationals, tenacious defender Katie Bowen still sees herself as a kid in the Football Ferns. She tells Suzanne McFadden why she keeps returning to the US, but why coming home to her mum means more than ever.
She’s spent almost a decade kicking a football about in the United States, yet it’s remarkable Katie Bowen hasn’t picked up any hint of an American drawl.
She laughs at the observation, and admits she’s surprised, too.
The experienced defender, who’s also been a Football Fern for the past 10 years, noticed it herself during the Ferns’ series with Olympic champions, Canada, a month ago, where there were eight young Kiwis fresh from the US college system in the side.
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“There were a couple of young girls whose accents I just couldn’t believe – they had such an American twang. And I was like ‘Oh my gosh, did I ever have that?’,” says Bowen, who now has her hard-earned green card. “I’m kind of happy that I didn’t.”
She has no doubt why – after living in North Carolina, Kansas City and Utah – she still sounds very Kiwi.
Every day, and sometimes twice a day, Bowen phones home to Auckland to talk to her mum, Pippa.
Her mother is her best friend, she says. And Pippa has also stepped up to be her No.1 supporter – a role previously filled by Bowen’s football-mad dad, Dave, until he passed away four years ago.
While it was her dad’s love for Manchester United that rubbed off on Bowen and her three older siblings, it was her mum who held her hand on the sidelines on Saturdays, watching the other kids play before Bowen was old enough.
And her mum is still there on the sideline whenever she can be. Otherwise she’s watching every game the 75-cap international plays with the assistance of satellites.
In fact, the whole family have been tuning in to watch Bowen from a distance this season, at the Tokyo Olympics, her rollercoaster season with Kansas City in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and two sets of Football Ferns internationals – the latest, a two-game series against Korea Republic starting this Saturday.
“One of my brothers gives me a lot of feedback on my games, which is taking a page out of my dad’s book,” Bowen says. “He’s taken on that critic role, which I really appreciate because he plays football too.” Patrick “Patch” Bowen plays for Bay Olympic in the Northern League.
“My other brother [Danny] works for the family’s electrical company, so he can’t slack off too much to watch my games – but he does when he can. My whole family are super invested.
“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without them. It can be very daunting and sometimes a lonely experience when you play overseas. And I still get really homesick. But the support of my family makes it a whole lot easier to be halfway across the world for months at a time.”
This is the longest Bowen has ever been without seeing a member of her family.
She wanted to come home three weeks ago, after wrapping up her sixth season in the NWSL and ending her contract with Kansas City (the team finishing 10th of 10 in their NWSL debut). But frustratingly she couldn’t nab an MIQ lottery spot to come home to.
“It’s been a tortuous experience. The number of times CJ [fellow Fern CJ Bott] and I have burst into tears when we didn’t get a spot…” she says.
But for now, at least, she’s been reunited her other family, the Football Ferns, in Goyang, South Korea. And she finally has an MIQ reservation for mid-December.
“I’m not counting down the days, because I don’t want to wish my life away,” Bowen says. “And I have South Korea to think about. But I am super-pumped to be finally coming home.”
There will, undoubtedly, be an emotional family reunion when she’s released around Christmas (when she’s hoping to get golf clubs). But then Bowen needs to get to work.
“I’m very fortunate to stay with my mum and not have to pay rent,” she says. “But unfortunately, [playing football] is still not a great salary and I have to be earning money.”
Since she began her annual pilgrimage to the US – taking up a football scholarship at the University of North Carolina in 2012 – she’s been returning home each summer, and giving one-on-one coaching to young footballers.
There’s one player in particular – Amy Crawford – who she’s formed a bond with over the past four years.
“I coach her three times a week consistently in my off-season. I’m open to coaching anyone, but she’s definitely my No.1 priority,” Bowen says.
Crawford plays for the West Auckland women’s team, and hopes to go to university in Australia and play for an A League Women’s team. They keep in touch when Bowen is in the US.
“I don’t make [coaching] too serious to the point where kids aren’t enjoying it,” Bowen says. “I just try to help out with whatever aspirations they have. I really love coaching – it is work, but it’s not a chore for me.”
Bowen has a degree in communications, and has thought about returning to school once her playing days are over to become a teacher.
“I’ve always wanted to be a special needs teacher, and I’d love to work with the Special Olympics. Hopefully after football I land somewhere great,” she says.
The lure of the A League is strong for Bowen, too, and she’s had conversations with Melbourne City over the past few months. But there’s one hang-up, she explains.
“It’s during the NWSL off-season, which would mean virtually no time to spend with my family, which is so very important to me.”
Yet it could be the best way to realise a long-time dream to play in a professional team alongside her “besties” – Football Fern stalwarts Hannah Wilkinson and Erin Nayler.
“The three of us are always joined at the hip,” Bowen says. “We’ve spoken almost every day during the Covid pandemic. So if we could make our dream happen in Australia that would be awesome.”
Wilkinson will play her first season with Melbourne City when the competition starts next week. But she’s nursing a minor injury which ruled her out of joining the Football Ferns in Korea.
Bowen isn’t sure where she will end up in 2022. It seems logical she wants to return to the US.
“I have my green card now and that was a couple of years’ work in progress. It’s so valuable,” she says. “And I like the length of the season and where the off-season falls so I can come home for Christmas and my niece and nephew’s birthdays.”
She’s sometimes taken aback when she considers the longevity of her football career. She made history as a 14-year-old playing for New Zealand at the U17 World Cup, and was just 17 when she first played for the Football Ferns.
She’s been to three World Cups and two Olympics, yet Bowen still feels like a youngster in the New Zealand strip. It’s because, she explains, she’s still playing alongside veterans Ali Riley and Ria Percival.
“When I was first in the Ferns, they were the older players in the squad – and I was the young one looking up to them. It’s kind of weird because I still feel a little like that,” she says.
Still, she enjoyed welcoming the young rookies into the side for the Canada series, and recognises it’s an important step in the Ferns’ build-up towards the 2023 World Cup in New Zealand.
“The more caps we can get under players’ belts, the more confidence we hit 2023 with. It’s a great opportunity for us older players, too, to get a fresh perspective,” she says. “A lot of them have really seized their opportunities. I was really impressed.”
After an experienced New Zealand line-up suffered a tough 5-1 loss to the newly crowned Olympic champions in their opening game, new Football Ferns coach Jitka Klimková introduced more of the young players in game two, where they went down 1-0 , but with a much improved performance.
“You can’t help but think this is a fresh slate. With the massive progress I saw in just two days on that Canada tour, it got me really excited for what could potentially happen after we’ve had seven tours or longer tours of a few weeks,” Bowen says. “It does feel like a fresh start working towards 2023 and beyond.”
Bowen fully understands the prestige, the legacy and the advantages playing a World Cup at home brings.
“I was fortunate enough to play in the U17 world tournament here in New Zealand, and that alone was unbelievable. But it’s a whole new ballgame when it’s the full women’s FIFA World Cup,” she says. “Honestly you dream of this moment, and it very rarely happens for players.”
Most of all, Bowen knows what it will mean to her family.
“They’ve always travelled with me to tournaments like this, but this time it might be a 30-minute drive to see us play. It will be a huge honour to play in front of them and the other Football Ferns families,” she says.
Still, Bowen knows it will be a “bittersweet experience” for her mum.
“I think she’ll be very emotional; she’d gone to those big events in the past with my dad. She came to France [the 2019 World Cup] and while it was joyous occasion, there was some weirdness about it too,” Bowen says.
“But having my three siblings and my nieces and nephews all there this time will be huge. I can’t wait to see Mum in the stands and hear her cheering my name.”
* The Football Ferns play Korea Republic at Goyang Stadium on Saturday at 6pm (NZT) and Tuesday 11pm. Both games will be live on Sky Sport 7.
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