NEW YORK — She never saw it coming.
To be fair, few would confident or prescient enough to foresee not only a World Cup title but a series of individual performances so dominant that they launch an athlete from the realm of “she’s a great athlete,” to “she’s one of the greatest American champions we’ve seen.” That’s the ride the Carli Lloyd has been on, one that started and reached its crescendo in Canada, was transported in celebratory delirium to Los Angeles and New York, and saw its latest stop on Tuesday at Nasdaq’s Market Site. Lloyd was a member of a supporting panel to extoll the virtues of the Sports Matter campaign set up by DICK’S Sporting Goods and DonorsChoose.org, the leading education-focused crowdfunding platform.
Yet the reason for Lloyd’s surprise at her sudden celebrity isn’t necessarily what you think; it has to do with a single obstacle in her past.
“I would have never imagined all of this,” Lloyd said. “I kind of hit a brick wall when I was playing and wasn’t sure I was going to continue on in the sport. I quickly realized that I needed to work harder and I needed to not just rely on my talent to get me to the top. This came during my junior year of college, and it got me to learn how to be a professional. I know what I just accomplished at the World Cup has been great, but I also know that I have five years left and I want to keep going and getting better, so I’m still hungry for more.”
That hunger was born in New Jersey, Delran Township more specifically, where Lloyd spent her entire youth. The U.S. national team’s part-time captain is quick to wax rhapsodic about the idyllic life she enjoyed playing a wide variety of sports on local streets — jailbreak and street hockey were apparently even more prevalent that soccer — and she is confident that upbringing set the stage for her current success.
Of all the different things she enjoyed in New Jersey, nothing was more fundamental to her personal development than organized youth sports, which is why she was inspired to speak up on the behalf of the Sports Matter program.
“Youth sports laid the groundwork for my professional career,” Lloyd said during the campaign’s introductory press conference. “It taught discipline, hard work, respect … those values and skills shouldn’t be overlooked. … When (Sports Matters) was first brought to my attention, I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Sports really do matter, and youth sports enabled me to be where I’m at today.
“I’m not saying every kid is going to become a professional athlete, but sports teaches you valuable lessons. Life lessons that you can’t learn in the classroom, and struggles and obstacles. It’s really important, and I’m a big believer that school sports need to be here forever.”
Lloyd is effectively an anti-Charles Barkley. While many superstar athletes want nothing more than to shirk role model responsibilities, Lloyd embraces the responsibility. She refuses to endorse products that don’t fit squarely within the confines of her performance-based, whole-living lifestyle, and she is quick to bemoan the loss of more traditional unstructured play time in local communities, citing visibly rising childhood obesity rates as a sad social development.
The hope is that young girls will see Lloyd excel on the international stage, see her positive choices reinforced by what she does off the field and follow her lead. She’s willing to accept that role, even if her path is tracked all the way back to kindergarten, when she first began traveling with a soccer ball.
“I started playing soccer at age 5,” Lloyd said. “My parents tried everything. They tried ballet, they tried dance. I wasn’t in to any of that stuff. I wasn’t into playing with dolls and dress up and all that. Everywhere I went I brought a soccer ball with me. I would be on the street I grew up on playing with boys, whether it be basketball, baseball or hockey. I was going to the local field and kicking the ball around. I was constantly around some sort of sport and I was so competitive, to the point where I didn’t care about my little brother and sister, I would still beat up on them. It was cool to know that all those hours I put in then has enabled me to be where I am now.”
Well, maybe it’s best not to emulate every part of Lloyd’s personal arc. Younger siblings are great training partners, but they deserve to win once in awhile, too, even if it’s a token victory.