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Meet Samuel Perez

Today we’d like to introduce you to Samuel Perez.

Hi Samuel, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
I am a professional freestyle soccer athlete/performer and first-generation UCLA graduate. To provide some background, freestyle soccer, globally known as freestyle football, is a sport/art in which one performs various tricks while juggling a ball with different body parts, excluding the hands and arms. Unlike most sports, the artistic aspect of freestyle soccer allows the flexibility to not only participate in competitions but also to perform entertaining tricks in front of audiences at both formal and informal events. I myself have had the privilege of performing at multiple halftime shows, fairs, school assemblies, among other organized events. In addition, if you choose to visit Santa Monica’s popular 3rd Street Promenade, you may have the chance of catching my friends and I in action, entertaining diverse audiences from across the world. For me, practicing freestyle soccer has had a substantial impact on various areas of my life, including professional, academic, and personal. Beginning my journey in this sport has definitely been one of the best choices of my life. I began practicing it at around 15-years-old; I am now 23.

Prior to my beginnings in the sport, I was bullied throughout middle school, and as a result, struggled with a lot of self-doubt in my early high school years. I struggled both in the classroom and out; those difficult experiences in middle school had negatively impacted my self-confidence. As a child of Mexican immigrants from the state of Michoacán, I dreamed of being the first in my family to achieve a college education. However, my own internal conflicts were proving to be an early roadblock on my path to a higher education. Later on, nearing the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I had the fortune of falling upon many freestyle soccer videos on YouTube. Hence, I immediately walked out to my backyard and began trying the seemingly impossible tricks I had seen in the videos. I struggled a lot at first, but trick by trick, practice by practice, my confidence grew, as well as my drive to succeed in the sport. Freestyle soccer became my escape from the demons of the past and helped me believe in myself again. Slowly, I applied the same principles of dedication, persistence, and hard work, which freestyle soccer ingrained within me into my academics. My grades began to drastically improve, and I eventually decided to apply for college my senior year, with UCLA and Berkeley being my top choices.

To the surprise of most who’ve listened to my story, I had the confidence of writing my college application essay, or personal statement, on freestyle soccer. Many individuals, including friends and teachers believed it was silly of me to write about myself “playing with a soccer ball” in my backyard. However, I desired to stay true to myself, and this was the best way to do so. I put part of my dream and future in the hands of this atypical essay. I described how freestyle soccer had taught me the principles of dedication, hard work, and persistence, which are essential for a successful college experience. In addition, I mentioned how freestyle soccer is a rare sport in which I am my own coach. My success in the sport is dependent on myself and myself only; I plan my own training and schedules. Early on, this sport helped me become more independent and self-disciplined. Within my essay, I explained the significance of these principles in college, an environment in which independence is a key to success; there are no parents or teachers to hold your hand and guide you every step of the way. Again, as in freestyle soccer, I described how my success in college would substantially depend on my own efforts and drive to succeed. Freestyle soccer proved to be more than just a hobby or workout; it was an escape from a difficult past and a guide towards a new beginning. Ultimately, through a combination of my grades, test scores, and personal essay, I earned the privilege of attending my dream school, UCLA…

My first year in college, I had the honor of meeting Peter and Daniel Azzam, two great friends and fellow professional freestylers. They helped me navigate through my first year and occasionally invited me to perform for their professional freestyle soccer team, Innovation LA. Through performances, both for the team and individually on 3rd Street Promenade, I was able to fund part of my education, another reason I’m truly grateful for freestyle soccer. In addition, performances helped fund my trips to the 2016 and 2017 Freestyle Soccer National Championship. Furthermore, through performances, I was also able to raise funds for various causes, including for student scholarships and for sports equipment for underprivileged children living in a rural village in Tijuana. Throughout my college years, freestyle soccer gifted me with invaluable experiences and motivated me to perform my best in school. Fast forward a couple of years, and I am now a first-generation graduate of UCLA., currently pursuing a Master’s degree. I also continue performing professionally, both individually and for Futboleros, a leading soccer entertainment company which performs throughout the nation. I could not be more thankful for my beloved sport/art and the opportunities, experiences, and teachings it has and continues to gift me with.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Aside from the struggles previously discussed in my opening story, there’s been a few times in which I’ve come close to quitting freestyle soccer. When I first began practicing, friends and soccer teammates would often try to discourage me from continuing. Some would say that I was wasting my time and not doing anything productive towards my future. One teammate even asked me, “how is freestyle gonna pay the bills?” In addition, one of my coaches mentioned “if you’re that good at all those tricks, you’re not focusing enough on the skills you need on the field.”

Hence, I chose to discontinue my freestyle soccer training for a couple of months. However, I eventually realized that I needed to stay true to myself and do what I love to do; I immediately resumed training and enjoyed every single moment of them. A few years later, after failing to qualify for the playoffs of my first two freestyle soccer tournaments, I again began to feel discouraged. I began doubting my skills and whether it was worth it to continue. I was amazed by the captivating skills the professionals would perform and questioned whether I had the ability to ever come close to their level.

However, this time around I possessed a stronger mentality and convinced myself to continue training. I reminded myself that when I first began, I practiced for the love of the sport and the self-confidence it brought for me, not for competitions. Through consistent trainings and hard work, a year later I was fortunate to qualify among the top 16 finalists at the 2016 Freestyle Soccer National Championship. I had the privilege of facing one of my idols in the round of 16, Khoa Nguyen, the 2015 national champion, a moment I’ll forever be grateful for. Throughout the years, I’ve learned to stay true to myself and never give up on what I love. There will be many obstacles along the path to personal success; however, most goals are achievable with the right mindset!

How do you think about happiness?
What brings me most joy is being able to provide part of my time to make someone’s day better, whether it’s through my education, performances, personal experiences, or simply being someone to talk to. You never know what someone may be struggling through and how much of an impact a small act of kindness can have. Throughout my college career, there were many difficult times which I had to navigate through myself; there were many times I felt lost and alone. Hence, being able to lighten up someone’s day is a true blessing. It makes me happy to help others with what I can. For example, I enjoy helping peers with school assignments, and I’m always open to volunteer and perform freestyle soccer for people. Being able to put a smile on people’s faces through my performances always makes my day. It makes me feel accomplished and proud, knowing that my hard work has brought a moment of joy to someone’s day!

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Image Credits

Sammy Almahi, Peter Azzam, Hyojin Ryu

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