March is Girls Sports Month. USA TODAY High School Sports will provide a series of pieces in which female athletes from high school to the pros and their mentors and coaches share their views on topics such as leadership, mentoring, perseverance and the important role athletics has played in their lives. The series begins with World Cup and Olympic soccer winner Carli Lloyd.
Carli Lloyd wasn’t always a World Cup and Olympic champion. She wasn’t always the Golden Ball winner or the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year. In fact, her path to superstardom had plenty of bumps and hiccups, which is precisely what makes her ascension to the universally acclaimed best in the world in women’s soccer such a perfect parable for young athletes. Lloyd is on top because she knew what she wanted and worked for it, plain and simple.
The Delran, N.J., native who still lives in South Jersey was thrust permanently into the international spotlight when her hat trick in the Women’s World Cup Final against Japan capped a magical World Cup tournament at which she seemed to improve in each match. Her performance on the pitch, and leadership on and off it as the U.S. team’s captain, was an unquestioned strength of the team’s rise to earn a third star emblazoned on their uniforms.
Yet, according to Universal Soccer Academy Director of Soccer Operations James Galanis, who has served as Lloyd’s coach since her New Jersey youth, Lloyd’s rise has been most notable for the times she has overcome doubts and struggles to reach her goals.
“Carli’s story is very unique,” Galanis told USA TODAY High School Sports. “It’s littered with ups and downs, rejections and people who didn’t believe in her. She didn’t shy away like some would. She took those challenges on board and conquered them and persevered, and she did it over and over and over again. She never stopped until she reached the top. She’s a fine example of someone who isn’t putting limits on herself. She can do whatever she wants, and whatever she wants to do she goes and does it. She had a goal 13 years ago to be the best player in the world, and now she is.
“What separates her from everyone else is her will. She’ll do whatever it takes to reach the top. She’ll do whatever it takes to continuously improve and prove people wrong. Thats what makes her special, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with someone who is respectful, honest and relentless.”
That relentless pursuit of perfection was clearly engrained in Lloyd from a young age, and forged in the crucible of youth sports. When speaking with USA TODAY about DICK’S Sporting Goods’ Donors Choose program, Lloyd made it clear just how important competitive sports — and chiefly soccer — were to her as a young girl.
“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. … 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 continues to prove that sports can be a profession and goal in and of themselves for girls across the U.S., and perhaps the world. That she has done so without resorting to certain glamour-focused efforts only makes her rise an even more powerful story for young girls. As Galanis makes abundantly clear, Lloyd has become a role model because of her performance, not her appearance.
And Lloyd knows where those performances all began, on the streets of her hometown, Delran Township.
“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.”
Lloyd has scored the gold-medal winning goals in the last two Olympics and will try to make it a third consecutive goal medal in Rio this summer. The U.S. team will attempt to be the first World Cup champion to win the Olympic gold medal the following year.
After the Olympics, Lloyd has a book coming out about her life and has been diligently working on it with her co-author.
“I’ve been nonstop since July,” she said. “I haven’t stopped. I come home and I try not to plan things but it doesn’t work out that way. There’s people wanting to come interview me while I’m training. It’s just incredible. At the end of the day I have to continue to get it done on the field and continue to work hard and get better.”
All that work has made Lloyd a better athlete and person, just as it should so many other young athletes as they grow, according to Galanis.
“We’re going out of our way to empower young women and help them realize they shouldn’t ever back down (in society today),” Galanis said. “They’ll find their dreams so long as they never back down and they don’t let anyone tell them they’re different because they’re female.
“The world will be a better place when girls continue to be involved in sports, because they’ll keep learning and incorporating all the things they learn in sports in the rest of their lives. Sports sets you up for life, and now that we’re having so many more females playing sports we’re getting the rise of females in the corporate world, and that will only increase the more girls remain involved in sports.”
Contributing: Courier-Post, Cherry Hill, N.J.