Carli Lloyd's stubborn brilliance

TOKYO — There were times when Carli Lloyd would train in secret. Perhaps she’d charge up and down a hotel stairwell. Perhaps, during a U.S. women’s national team camp, she’d pull up Maps on her phone. She’d seek a nearby field, or a quiet street, and she’d sneak out for a run.

For over a decade now, they’ve nourished her. Distance runs and intervals, early mornings and afternoons, rain or shine or even snow. She’ll go out her front door, 20 minutes down a never-ending Medford, New Jersey road, and 20 minutes back. If a day winds down, and her feet haven’t yet pattered across pavement or grass, her brain squirms. “She definitely gets a little on edge,” her husband Brian Hollins says.

“If I don't get my run in, it's on my mind the entire day,” Lloyd explains. “And then when I go do it, I feel so much better.”

But five years ago, Lloyd says, entering the 2016 Olympics, USWNT head coach Jill Ellis and high performance coach Dawn Scott wouldn’t let her.

Their reasons were likely backed by science, individualized data, empirical research that has refined our understanding of how elite athletes can optimize performance. Every major professional sports team employs data; weaponizes it; chases it in search of every last microscopic advantage. And it told the USWNT, at times, that Lloyd’s obsessive running was suboptimal.

It told her to do less. She wanted to do extra.

It told her to taper before games. She wanted to push.

It told her to rest up, especially coming off a knee injury in 2016. She wanted to run.

So she did, clandestinely, again and again. She says Ellis and Scott “denied” her. She “had to sneak out and run a massive amount of times.”

And did she ever consider that maybe, just maybe, she should subscribe to the science? That her personal methods were misguided and outdated?

Carli Lloyd has done it her way, and it's gotten her this far. (Photo by Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Carli Lloyd has done it her way, and it's gotten her this far. (Photo by Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Of course not, because they’ve accompanied her on a storied career that, even at age 39, is very much not slowing down. She knows, intimately, how she built her “aerobic base” and her “engine.” She had a longtime trainer, but has done most of it “by myself,” she says. No apps. No sports scientists. No GPS monitors. She feels in tune with her body; she thinks only she knows what it needs. And she has her own data as proof: 309 USWNT appearances, 16 years, five different positions, 126 goals, two World Cup titles, two Olympic golds.

And she’s adamant that running, stubbornly, week after week, year after year, is a primary reason for those numbers.

“If I didn't,” she believes, “I wouldn't be here to this day. I wouldn't still be playing.”

Her longevity, in a way, is as defiant as she is. She recently chided a journalist who’d dared to even question whether she’d make a fourth Olympic roster. She did, of course, as the USWNT’s oldest Olympian ever. Last month, she became the program’s oldest-ever goalscorer. This month, she's needed, desperately. The gold medal favorites are struggling for goals here in Tokyo heading into a Friday quarterfinal against the Netherlands (7 a.m. ET, NBCSN). Lloyd, even at 39, might be their best clutch scoring threat.

After all, she’ll tell anybody who’ll listen: “I feel better now than I did at 25.”

Why Carli Lloyd treasurers being different

Two decades ago, talent and opportunity took Carli Lloyd to the cusp of soccer stardom. But fitness, initially, stopped her in her tracks. “I didn't have a great work ethic,” she admits. Game-to-game inconsistency plagued her. Coaches dropped her.

In 2004, at age 21, as Lloyd tells it, she decided to change. To dedicate herself to the sport. She started, she says, “with a whole lot of long-distance runs,” and, well, “I'm still doing it to this day.” It started as conditioning. It became a compulsion, something she needed to feel good about herself, “part of who I am.” And it became the base from which she’s built a training regimen almost entirely designed by intuition.

She’d see teammates lifting weights, but her body felt “heavy and stiff” when she did, so she stopped.

She’d get pregame meal plans, but discarded them. “I go into a game hungry,” she says.

She’d do plyometrics, pushups, situps, hops, long runs, track runs, sprints, beach workouts, hills … “but I don't just do things because someone said, ‘This is good, and this is gonna work,’” she clarifies. “If I try them, and I test them, and it doesn't make sense to me, and I don't feel like it's translating or it's making my body feel good, I'm not gonna do it.”

Lloyd has, of course, received support over the years, both institutionally and from coaches. She has a new local trainer, and a new “functional movement” lifting plan. But she embraces noncompliant individualism. She embraces an “old school” persona. She grinds, and tells you she grinds — “I know that there's no one out there around the world that [trains] as much as I do. I mean, I'd love to hear one person” — and grinds some more to validate her words, her work, her worldview, her entire existence.

She constantly watches film on her laptop.

She stretches, uses a vibrating massage gun for deep-tissue muscle work, and wears full-leg compression devices while watching TV.

She adheres to a strict diet. She used to love bread, Hollins says, but cut it out, along with sweets. She now cooks meals heavy on vegetables, fish and other proteins. “She gets on me when I eat a cookie sometimes,” Hollins says with a laugh.

There’s also the masseuse that comes to the house twice a week. There are the 9:30, maybe 10 p.m. bed times. “I've done ice baths consistently my whole entire career,” she says. “Some people wanna say, ‘Oh, well the science doesn't prove that it works.’ I don't buy into it. It's making me feel good. I continue to do it every single day.” Hollins says she bought a horse trough, and fills it with ice and water in their yard.

She doesn’t just admit she’s “different.” She treasures being different, one of a kind. She thinks she’s “had to overcome a lot because I have gone about my career way different than any other person.”

And those other people, for the most part, have learned to let her have her way. To let Carli be Carli. “I've obviously continued to be successful, so I think people have just accepted it,” she says. The USWNT’s new head of performance, Ellie Maybury, has been “fully supportive,” Lloyd says, and tells her: “Whatever works for you, just keep doing it.”

Carli Lloyd's last hurrah?

Carli Lloyd and the USWNT were so-so during the group stage at the Olympics, but the gold medal is still very much in their sights. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
Carli Lloyd and the USWNT were so-so during the group stage at the Olympics, but the gold medal is still very much in their sights. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

There will come a time when Lloyd decides that she no longer wants to do it. Not because her body breaks down, she clarifies, but because a next stage of life beckons. Soccer has kept it on hold for so long. “I'm sure my husband and friends and family are gonna be excited when I'm done playing, because I'll actually get to do things,” Lloyd said last month.

When asked if there’s a list of things, a bucket list of sorts for when soccer is no longer an obstacle, Hollins says, “Oh, gosh, yeah.”

He and Lloyd both mention starting a family. Hollins mentions skiing and traveling. Lloyd also recently welcomed her parents and siblings back into her life after a yearslong rift. Once soccer steps aside, there’ll be plenty to catch up on, “things that I've put on hold for 17 years,” Lloyd says.

But she hasn’t thought that far ahead yet. “My goal is to get through this Olympics,” she says. And then, “obviously, start thinking about the future.”

All she knows is that the decision to step away, whenever it comes, will be difficult. Because “my body's not breaking down, I haven't lost a step, I don't feel that I've gotten worse the older I've gotten,” she reiterates.

She’s taken to the striker role, the fifth of her five USWNT positions. Heading into these Olympics, in the 24 games she started since 2019, she was averaging a ludicrous 1.68 goals plus assists per 90 minutes. She should some sort of opportunity, even if it’s off the bench, on Friday.

And the one absolute certainty is that, when she does get her chance, she believes she’ll take it.

“I've honestly never felt fitter, and faster, and as explosive as I am,” Lloyd says.

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