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Reigning WNBA MVP Sylvia Fowles is studying to be an embalmer

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The three-time WNBA champion is following up on a life-long dream.

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Reigning WNBA champion and MVP of the league Sylvia Fowles already knows how to work against bodies six feet over. Now she's learning how to prepare bodies for six feet under as an embalmer.

The 11-year vet wants to start a second career after she retires, something she's been dreaming about since she was five years old. Fowles, the Minnesota Lynx center, has already started taking online classes to get her degree in mortuary science through American Academy McAllister Institute in New York.

Her postgame ambition has added to Fowles' already heavy load. With the Lynx in the playoffs, her WNBA season could last until October, and Fowles spends her "offseasons" playing in the Chinese Women's Basketball Association.

She started taking classes in 2016, and when she caught up with SB Nation in 2018, she said she still has another year and a half to go.

"I get up for treatment in the morning, eat breakfast while I'm at the gym," Fowles said. "We have practice. Depending on what kind of day it is we have to stay after practice to do X/O stuff. Then I come home, shower, eat and I literally study for like five hours and then I've got to get up and repeat it the next day."

She's taking four classes as of early June 2018: chemistry, accounting, clinical embalming and color cosmetics. Yep, that’s learning how to properly mix fluids to put makeup on the body for different skin tones. Each week she has an assessment or test from classes, and up to four games a week among various intense practices in between.

“The most complicated part about it is finding time,” Fowles told SB Nation. “We seriously get to the gym around 9 o’clock in the morning and I seriously don’t get home until 4 o’clock. So I’m like ‘I don’t wanna look at no work right now. I’m tired!’”

It's a schedule she takes on because of a longstanding crusade prompted by one of her first interactions with death.

Though Fowles jokingly called herself a "creepy kid" growing up, the idea wasn't drawn from a gothic teen stage or a horror movie, rather a chilling memory of a relative lost too soon. Her grandmother, just in her mid-50s, passed away from lung cancer. Fowles recalled saying goodbye.

"My older siblings and cousins thought it was a good idea to give her a last kiss," said Fowles. "As we gave her a last kiss we were on our way to the burial and my lips itched the whole way there. I always felt like they did something wrong, so I told my mom that this was something I wanted to do. I want to work with dead people and make sure they do it right."

Embalmers work to drain the fluids from cadavers and replace them with formaldehyde -- a fluid meant to preserve the body -- and they then dress the deceased. The experience pictures to be less than pleasurable, but in Fowles' mind the work brings closure to mourning families.

"When I originally wanted to do it I just wanted to do hair, makeup and dress, but since I started taking classes and getting all the details I want to do the embalming part," said Fowles. "I want to be that person to get all the good stuff out and make sure they're seen as something good, that last image for their family to be a happy home."

To say the least, it's an unusual career path.

"I don't really think twice about it," said Fowles. "I think it's normal for me. I like to see how other people react, but to me it's normal." Even if her workload is anything but.

Her schedule is packed, and that's an issue that's deterred her from her studies before.

She first attempted taking courses when she played in Turkey in 2010, but ultimately had too much going on and couldn't stay focused. At the end of 2015 in China she decided it was time to pick it up again.

Fowles credited her former teammate Janel McCarville in 2016. McCarville was a little shocked by Fowles' career choice, but helped her stay focused on plane rides back while teammates were watching movies or resting following a game.

"At first it was weird, like a surprise, but in the end if it's something you want to do I'll push you forward and say ‘Get it done,'" McCarville said.

Putting her mind to something else also helps Fowles escape from basketball when she needs it. Fowles says her schedule usually has her wired, and after games she doesn't get to bed until 2 or 3 in the morning. Studying gives her another outlet for that energy.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve knows the importance of an escape first hand.

"As a pro athlete it's not your typical 9-5 job where your physically on the job," Reeve says. "Obviously we spend a lot of time, like 6 or 7 hours in a day, but then there's this freedom when they go away. I know for me having something to focus on is often times a good thing, so for Syl to be able to get away mentally and do something else which is another passion of hers, I think it's a good thing."

At just 32 years old, she doesn't have a time frame on the end of her WNBA career but she’s closing in on her degree. Before then, the tricky part will be finding time to do the required hands-on work embalming on campus in New York.

There Fowles will be hit with a new round of challenges unique to women the size of WNBA centers trying to make it in the profession. Her 6'5 height might be a blessing on the court, but as an embalmer it could pose problems.

Amber Carvaly, a licensed funeral director who co-runs the Undertaking L.A. mortuary in California, had back issues hunching over tables for long periods of time, and she stands a foot shorter at just 5'5.

"Being an embalmer is really hard on your feet and your legs," said Carvaly. "It's extremely hard on your hands because you're holding little, tiny tools all the time."

Those small tools will also be difficult for Fowles to finesse.

"I think it'll be a challenge, but I don't think it will be difficult," said Fowles. "When you put your mind to something, it's not always going to work the way you want it to work in your head. It's going to be a complication, but I'm always looking forward to a challenge. I'm not worried if it's going to be a problem or not. I'm just worried about if it's gonna get done or not."

This story was originally published in July of 2016.