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The Curb

Jun 6 2019
Photo by
Brad Smith/ISIphotos.com
Photo by
Brad Smith/ISIphotos.com
Carli Lloyd
U.S. Women's National Team
Jun 6 2019
I

was going to be an FBI agent. That was my plan.

I was totally done with soccer. Done done.

In my head, I was going to finish my last year at Rutgers and then get a real job. There really wasn’t any other option. This was in 2003, right before the Nordic Cup Tournament. We had a training camp before the roster was going to be named, and my coach with the under-21 national team called me to the meeting room for a chat.

He didn’t sugar coat anything with me.

It was the first time in my life that a soccer coach had been totally honest with me.

He said, “Carli, you’ve got all the talent in the world. But you know what? You don’t work hard enough. You aren’t fit and I simply can’t put you on the roster.”

And then just like that he told me I didn’t make the Nordic Cup team.

I am not a very emotional person by nature. But as soon as I left the room, the tears started streaming down my face. The dream was over. Just that quick.

You have to remember that this was a different time. There was no NWSL yet. There was no real way to make a living overseas. I mean, I couldn’t even make our U-21 national team. I was a kid from Jersey who went to Rutgers and scored a bunch of goals, and was having a pretty good college career, and now I was preparing for it to be over.

I was bawling.

When I got to my room, I called my parents, and then I pretty much started blaming everybody but myself. How could he not take me? I’m good enough to be on the team. I’m more skilled than a lot of players on the team.

I was raging and did not understand it.

It was the coach’s fault. It was my teammates’ fault. It was everybody else’s fault. Then I told them, “I’m done. I’m completely done.”

Rutgers Athletics

I went back to Rutgers convinced that I would never in a million years wear the U.S.A. shirt again. Then something pretty incredible happened that would eventually change my life on and off the field.

My parents kept asking me to reconsider, but I was just so, so angry. They didn’t want to believe that it was really over, especially since they had spent so much time and money over the years to help lay the foundation for me. My dad then approached this Australian soccer coach who was kind of famous in our area for training young, talented individuals and teams.

His name was James Galanis. He had actually been training my brother’s team, so my dad went up to him after a practice when he was getting into his car.

My dad goes, “My daughter needs you.”

And James says, “Well, who’s your daughter?”

And my dad goes, “Carli Lloyd.”

And then James says, “Ahhhhhh. Carli Lloyd … I know Carli Lloyd.”

He didn’t exactly mean it in the most glowing terms. He had trained a goal keeper on my club team, the Medford Strikers, and watched our games a lot. He saw that I was talented and working hard on some days, and others days I was horrible and lazy. He’d also noticed my bad body language and could tell I had poor character.

My parents kept asking me to reconsider, but I was just so, so angry.

James told my dad, “Sure, here’s my card. Have her call me.”

But what he actually said to himself was, If she wants it bad enough, she will call me.

Two weeks went by. I didn’t call him. Three weeks went by. Didn’t call him. I’m done.

Special Agent Carli Lloyd, reporting for duty.

Then, one night … I don’t know what came over me. Something broke through. I started thinking about my love for the ball and about the curb out front of my house on Black Baron Drive in Delran, New Jersey — where it all began.

Everybody, if they love this game, had a curb growing up. Or maybe it was a wall. Or maybe it was a rebounder.

For me, it was a curb.

My sister, she was the social butterfly. She loved hanging with her friends, putting on makeup and playing with Barbies and all that stuff.

I was different. I was your typical tomboy. My best friend in the entire world was the ball.

I mean, I loved my neighborhood friends — don’t get me wrong. Roller hockey, football, street basketball? JAILBREAK? Rollerblading down the most bumpiest concrete street in town? All that mid-’90s stuff — loved all that stuff. But the ball was my BFF. I took it ever-y-where. The grocery store. The doctor’s office. Christmas dinner. Easter brunch. My aunt’s house. Wherever.

Kind of like Wilson in Cast Away.

If there wasn’t anyone around to play, or everyone had gone inside for the night, I’d take the ball outside to the street in front of my house and one-touch it off this one particular curb.

Courtesy of Carli Lloyd (2)

And I’m talking a curb here. Not a wall. A straight up, New Jersey–regulation street curb. I had to be so soft and precise with my touch, because if that ball went three inches off the ground, it wasn’t coming back to me.

My neighbors would hear the ball constantly hitting that curb one pass after another and then when I missed I would scream, “Gahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!” when I went running across the lawn to retrieve the ball.

I probably made … let me do some rough math here…. At least 10 years × 365 days × conservatively 2,000 passes a day…. That’s 7.3 million passes off that curb, which is probably why it looks the way it looks!

Assuming I messed up about 1 every 200 touches, my neighbors heard me screaming out “Gaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and saw me running furiously across their yards at least 36,000 times.

But that was just me. That was my favorite thing in the world. The curb never got tired. The curb never wanted to go in and play video games. The curb was as obsessed as I was.

I had one dream. And I had it before I even knew what it meant. I had the dream before the ’99 USWNT team became rock stars. I had the dream before the Women’s World Cup even existed. I wanted to play for my country. Not for fame or for money.  It was all about this connection I had with the ball.

The curb never got tired. The curb never wanted to go in and play video games. The curb was as obsessed as I was.

I don’t know how to describe it better than that. It was a connection.

So, anyway, I’m sitting in my room at Rutgers, and I’m 22 years old, and my coach is telling me that I’m not good enough, and it’s all just over.

Then, to this day, I still don’t know why…. but I pick up the phone. I call the number on the card. This guy with a weird accent answers. Literally, I could hardly understand him.

He asked me a lot of questions about my career and lifestyle. He then asked me if I could come for an evaluation so he could take a look at me when I was back home.

It was the start of our winter break, and I was supposed to be going on a skiing trip with my boyfriend Brian (now my husband). But I said that we’d delay the trip, and I’d be there. James wanted to run me through a technical evaluation and a physical evaluation on two different days.

So I show up to the field — actually back to the same fields I trained at when I was with the Medford Strikers — and there’s no lights except this light pole they used to light up the parking lot. James starts running me through some drills. I’m dribbling through his famous sticks — right foot, left foot, inside of the foot, outside of the foot. I’m juggling and passing with both feet, and it’s really intense. We get about 15 minutes in, and there’s no rest at all. It was one after another, continuous. I feel like I’m about to pass out. It was the hardest training I had ever done!

Courtesy of Carli Lloyd

So I’m like, “I thought … we were … [gasp] … going … to do … [wheeze] … the technical evaluation … [dry heave] … first.”

And James is like, “This is the technical evaluation.”

I almost had a heart attack. I thought about walking right off the field and getting in my car and going skiing and having a really nice, fun, chill life.

But I didn’t. I stayed.

Then I showed up the next day for the physical evaluation, and it was actually the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. It was hell, basically. I was so unfit that it was ridiculous.

Running without a ball was a foreign concept to me. Mentally, I had a hard time with running. I feared running. He put me through a mile test, 800s, 400s, 200s and 100s. At the end, James sat me down in the bleachers at Lenape High School and told me the absolute truth about myself, and he went even further than my U-21 coach did.

He talked to me about the philosophy on which he bases all of his players — The Five Pillars. Tactical, Technical, Mental Toughness, Physical and Character.

He told me that my technical ability and tactical awareness were very good but my mental toughness, character and physical fitness were very, very bad.

Then he went on to talk about some of the greatest athletes of all time — Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and even Bruce Lee. He didn’t talk about their achievements. He only talked about what they sacrificed to reach those heights. They woke up at 5 a.m. to train. They worked out at 10 p.m. on a Saturday. They put up 2,000 shots after a loss. They put up 2,000 shots after a win. They did 1,500 pushups and sit-ups daily. They’d outwork all their opponents and only compete against themselves.

They wanted the ball in the biggest moments, when everyone around them was crumbling.

Finally, James said, “If you work on those three weaknesses, you can become the most complete soccer player in the world. So I’ll train you free and won’t charge your parents anything. But you have to dedicate your entire life to this. If I call you at 10 p.m. on a Saturday, and I tell you to come to the field, are you going to come?”

Courtsey of Carli Lloyd

He didn’t say it in a way that pressured me. It was up to me and it was my decision. It was very matter-of-fact. In fact, at the time, he told me I couldn’t have a boyfriend — but I already had one. I thought this guy was crazy. If I wanted to go on to become the best player in the world, the ball had to be my life.

It was like … If you’re out, that’s cool. Go skiing, live your life. But if you’re in? You’re all the way in — 100%, 100% of the time.

I didn’t even hesitate for a second.

I said, “I’m in.”

That was 16 years ago. I haven’t been skiing since.

Now, if this was the cliché, cookie-cutter version of this story, then it would’ve all been straight up from there, like a rocket ship. But I was never a cookie-cutter, big-time college star. I didn’t have any hype. I wasn’t on the posters. I fought for the next five years to keep the dream alive. I fought my way back into the U-21 team and this time to be a pivotal player, and then into the senior team, and then to cement myself into the starting 11, and then onto the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympic team.

I even scored the winner in the 2008 Olympic final. Against Brazil, too. In extra time, too. Got the gold medal. I played every single minute in those Olympic games.

Got the parade back home in Delran, riding in the back of the fire truck. Got the GOLDEN GIRL! headline in the local paper.

I even got that moment when it all sank in, and I almost started to relax.

But then, I’ll never forget this … a few days after the parade in Delran, I was in James’ basement, about to get in a workout, and saw something that James had written on the chalkboard by the treadmill leaned up against the wall.

Courtesy of Carli Lloyd

It said: THE OLYMPICS IS FORGOTTEN.

If you think this is some motivational cliché, then you don’t understand our world. You don’t understand the competition and the pressure. You don’t understand my story.

About a year later, the name of Pia Sundhage, our national team coach, flashed across my phone. I was expecting some good news, but she called to tell me that she wasn’t going to be renewing my U.S. Soccer contract. She said that I had to be better. That I had to prove myself. Again, I was holding back the tears.

And then when I hung up with her, the tears streamed down my face. All that progress. All that work. And again … am I done?

I immediately called James, and I told him what had happened, and he said, “O.K. So now we work 10 times harder. You have to dig deeper and prove that you aren’t going anywhere.”

So we worked 10 times harder.

We started doing double days. This was a first for me. I’d show up in the morning for technical training. Then I’d go home and rest. Then I’d show up at night for the physical grind. It went on like this for several weeks before I headed back into camp, My first camp back, I remember Pia being very pleased and happy. Three days into the camp, she told me that I looked fit, sharp and that I had my contract for the year.

I proved that no matter what life throws at me, I won’t pout or blame others — I will just work 10 times harder to show that I am not going anywhere!

Was it all good from there? Was I on all the posters? Heck no.

The disappointment of the 2011 World Cup Final happened — I missed a PK, and felt like I let the team down. And then right before the 2012 Olympics, I lost my starting spot.

ISIPhotos.com

I showed up to the field to train with James my first day back, and I totally lost it. I started bawling. Hyperventilating, actually. It was the first time that James had ever seen me cry. And James said, “It’s all good. Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re going to train six hours a day, every day for the next 12 days before you leave for England, and we’re going to get you ready. We’re gonna show them again that you have another gear and when you get your chance, you will seize it.”

So we trained six hours a day, every day.

I remember Heather Mitts looking at me like I was crazy. She would train with us, and she was concerned. “You’re going to burn yourself out. What are you doing? You are training way too much!”

But for me, that moment was the moment. I had spent my whole life blaming other people. I had spent my whole life saying, “poor me.” But once I got to that place in 2012, that was the turning point in my career. I started including visualizing in my preparation for the first time ever in my career, and I started to believe in myself more and more. I was just insanely focused.

Not on my coaches. Not on proving people wrong. Not on my ego. Not on getting famous. It was all about the ball and the work James and I had been putting in. All the sacrifices I have made.

The ball, the ball, the ball.

At the Olympics, the night before the first game, Pia came to see me in my room, and she said, “I have been impressed with your training. We’re going to need everybody to win this gold medal. Just … just be ready. You have to be ready because we will need you.”

I said, “I am ready.”

That night, I visualized scoring the winning goal against France.

Shannon Boxx went down with an injury 16 minutes into our first match, and Pia called my name. I was readyI tore off my warm up top and bottom and checked in. I didn’t even have time to warm up. I never looked back. I couldn’t take my foot off the gas for one split second.

I came in playing a defensive midfield role and would play that role up until the final. We were losing against France 2-0. Then it was 2-1, 2-2, and I scored from distance to make it 3-2. We ended up winning 4-2.

I wasn’t coming off the field that summer. Even after I scored the two goals in the final against Japan, and we won the gold medal again, my mind went right back to the chalkboard next to the treadmill.

THE OLYMPICS IS FORGOTTEN.

It’s not a cliché. It’s real. Those three years between the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 World Cup, I was working as hard as I ever have in my life. I was laser focus and believed I could become the best player in the world.

So many people want to slap labels on you, so many people want to doubt you, so many people want to bring you down when you reach the top, so many people think that they know what’s going on in your mind and are an expert. And yet, all of those people have no clue.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

Those people don’t see me every single day, dedicating my life to this game that I love. In order to be great, you have to sacrifice time with friends and family, you sacrifice any semblance of a normal life. Everything other than soccer came second in my life. The ball was my life.

James did not want me to have a boyfriend because he knew that it could derail me. He knew that you have to be completely focused on your task. But Brian was the one constant in my life. He has been my rock and 100% supportive of all that I need to do in order to be the best. We married in 2016 and if he didn’t understand my life … if he didn’t get it, every time I had to leave to go to the field at 10 p.m. while we were in the middle of watching a movie on the couch … then you wouldn’t be reading this story right now.

There would be no Carli Lloyd.

That’s the reason I am telling this story. People see the hat trick in the 2015 World Cup Final, but they don’t see the 12 years of sacrifice, struggle and hard work that went into that moment. Every single day I have been grinding away to become better, and to become complete with The Five Pillars.

A part of me loves the struggle, and a part of me hates the struggle. But all of me is all about the struggle, because without it, there would be no truly great moments. I’m O.K. with not following the crowd. I’m O.K. with being the black sheep. I’m O.K. with being different. I’m O.K with not being in the spotlight. All I want is my play on the field to do the talking. In order to bring me down or break me, my heart would have to be ripped out of me.

A part of me loves the struggle, and a part of me hates the struggle. But all of me is all about the struggle.

I just want to win.

I am addicted to winning.

I’ll never forget, after the group stages of the World Cup, there was a moment when I had a conversation with Jill Ellis before the game against China, and she said, “Look, we’ve got yellow card suspensions, I have to make some changes so Morgan Brian is going to sit behind you. She’s is going to be more on the defensive side. You attack and just go be you.”

After that, I was flying.

I remember the morning of the final, when we went out to the bus to go to the match, there were more American fans than I’d ever seen in my life, waiting to send us off. And that’s probably the only time in my career that I’ve broken my routine and taken my headphones off for a second to actually stop and soak in the moment.

Chills.

By the time we got out on the field, there was no fear, no nerves, no what ifs. It was just, Let’s go do this.

I wanted the ball. I was ready.

Funny thing is — when we got the corner in the third minute, and Megan whipped in the low cross, and I took a stab at the ball with my outside foot, it probably looked like chaos. But actually, that’s something that James and I had practiced right before I left for the World Cup. We would set up ten mannequins in the box, and he’d whip in low crosses, and I had to find a way to get it in, with any part of my body, no matter what.

When Megan put the ball in, what I did was instinct. I had done it a hundred times with nobody watching at the Medford Strikers field. I stabbed the ball with the outside of my foot.

It hit the back of the net. One–nil in the World Cup final.

Two minutes later … what can I say? Another ball whipped in, a Japanese player misplays a ball inside the box, and I went to find the ball in a crowded box.

Two–nil in the World Cup final. It’s like, What is going on here? Pinch yourself.

And then … The chip.

You want to know what I was thinking?

It’s the same feeling you have when you walk out onto the field when you’re a kid, and your coach has just rolled out all the balls before practice, and you see one sitting there at midfield.

You think, Let me just bomb this from the mid stripe. What the heck.

Well, I got the ball in my own half, took a few touches, glanced up with my eyes only to see where the keeper was … and I thought, Let me just bomb this from the mid stripe. What the heck. I smashed it. When it left my foot I knew it was the most solid, connected shot.

It just so happened to be in the World Cup final.

Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

It really was crazy, it felt like an eternity watching the ball soar through the air. I saw the keeper backing up, and I was like, No! … And then I saw her reaching back, and I was like, No! … And then I saw it brush her fingertips and go in the net.

What can I say?

I was back home at the park in Delran, passing the ball up against the curb. I was that girl from Black Baron Drive, not caring what anybody in the world thinks. I was a World Cup champion.

I was that girl from Black Baron Drive, not caring what anybody in the world thinks. I was a World Cup champion.

That was four years ago.

And here I am, once again, facing a new struggle.

Am I too old?

Am I fit enough?

Am I done?

Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

THE WORLD CUP IS FORGOTTEN.

Carli Lloyd
U.S. Women's National Team