as told to Christina M. Tapper
Even if you weren't familiar with Carli Lloyd before this year's women's World Cup, chances are you know her name now. Despite netting game-winning goals to lift the U.S. to gold in the 2008 and '12 Olympics, Lloyd had largely flown under the radar. That is, until the midfielder had the biggest moment of her career on soccer's biggest stage.
During Team USA's 5--2 World Cup final win over Japan in July — a rematch of the 2011 final, which the U.S. lost in dramatic fashion — Lloyd scored on a corner kick, then drilled a loose ball into the net. She capped the performance with a stunning, video game-like wonder-strike from the center circle — 50 yards! It took Lloyd only 16 minutes to record the first-ever hat trick in a Women's World Cup final (and the second including men's finals), but getting to that moment took much longer.
Before Lloyd won the 2015 Golden Ball as the World Cup's best player, she was cut from the Under-21 team and benched while on the national team. Sports Illustrated Kids recently caught up with Lloyd, who shared her journey to that shining moment.
I developed a passion for soccer pretty early. I was five years old when I started playing, and I was pretty natural with it. As a kid, I played for the rec team in Delran, New Jersey, before I went on to play club soccer. I wasn't into dolls or girly things. Everywhere I went, I brought a ball — family functions, birthdays, holidays. I was constantly playing.
I stayed in New Jersey to play for Rutgers University. In the fall I was playing with Rutgers, and in the spring I was traveling with the U-21 Women's National Team. There was a lot going on, but I managed. Then I got cut from the U-21 team.
For pretty much my whole youth career, I was the best player on every single team — high school, club, and Rutgers. Then I reached the U-21 team, and there were a lot of other great players. When you mix them together, you have to be even better than the rest so you can stand out. I struggled with that. I wasn't working as hard as I should have been; I was just relying on my talent. I reached a plateau and was cut from the team in 2003. I happened to be re-invited to the team because there was an injury, but at that point I was ready to hang up my cleats. Shortly after that, my dad introduced me to James Galanis, who was training my brother's team. My dad thought James could change my mind and help me. I was willing to give it a try. I called him up, and I've been training with him ever since.
James identified my weaknesses. No other coach had done that. I had coaches tell me that I'm great and that I'm the best. When I met James, he told me I had a long way to go. James's philosophy is based on five pillars: physical power, mental toughness, character, technical skills, and tactical awareness. My tactical awareness and technique were fairly decent. But my mental toughness, physical power, and character were really, really weak. When I first met James, I was very unfit. I'd blame coaches and teammates for things that I wouldn't take responsibility for. At that point, I knew some things had to change.
SEIZE THE MOMENT(S)
In my first World Cup, in 2007, I had played the first three games, and then I had been benched the last three. It wasn't how I thought my first major tournament would go. It was also a time when I was able to reflect and dig deeper. I needed to be better for the Olympics the following year.
And I did come back better and stronger. To go to the Olympics, play every minute, and score a couple of important goals — that gave me a boost of confidence.
Then came the 2011 World Cup final. It was awful. You come that close, and one penalty kick is the deciding factor? Some of the best players miss penalty kicks. I missed. That was hard. And I was benched right before the London Olympics in 2012. I started to think my career was over. I felt like I had failed. But I had a job to do, so I had to prepare. I was ready for my chance to play. Sixteen minutes into the first game, I subbed in for an injured teammate. I scored the winning goal and continued to persevere every round to help our team win gold.
There were times when I was crying and upset. Missing a PK and then being benched — that's no fun. But I upheld one of the five pillars: character. I was cheering my teammates and smiling, and I knew I'd get a moment and would seize it. It felt so great when I did.
In this year's World Cup, for the first three group games, my team and I weren't really attacking like we should have. My confidence was dipping. James was very vocal over text, sending me encouraging messages. (I decided that I didn't want him or my family there, so I could really focus.) He told me to take risks and not worry about making mistakes. In the knockout round, I got my first goal on a PK against Colombia, and I think that is what jump-started everything. With each game after that, I became more confident. I'm built to last six or seven games, so I knew I could keep it up and and make things happen, and that's what I did. The hat trick in the final was great, but helping my team win it all was even better.
This journey has taught me so much. If you don't have difficult times, you don't learn or break barriers. You may see me at a game or on television, but what you don't always see are the struggles, the obstacles, and the many hours I spend training. And my quest to outwork my opponents every single day. All of that has helped me get this far.
Photos: Maddie Meyer/FIFA/Getty Images (goal celebration), Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images (action), Michael Loccisano/Getty Images (parade)