The combination of a knee injury and the Tokyo Olympics being postponed due to the pandemic turned out to be a life-changing blessing in disguise for soccer star Carli Lloyd.
After undergoing the first surgery of her career last year and having a schedule cleared of all obligations, she had time to reflect on a rift with her family that had stretched past a decade.
If the Olympics went off as planned last year, they might still be estranged to this day.
"I don’t know what would’ve happened if the Olympics actually went on in 2020," Lloyd told TODAY. "Would they have been a part of it? Would I have rekindled the relationship with them? I don’t know.
"I’m just happy now that we are in the place that we are, and everybody feels good about it."
Lloyd had not had contact with her parents in 12 years by last year and had publicly exposed their strained relationship in her 2016 book, “When Nobody Was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World."
I'm in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s also the happiest I’ve ever felt going into a major tournament.
Much of the issue centered around her personal coach of 17 years, James Galanis, whom she said she cut ties with last year before making the first steps toward reconnecting with her family. In her book, she detailed how her father threw her out of the house in 2008, which led to a split that resulted in Lloyd not even being invited to her sister's wedding.
Patching things up with her sister ultimately led her to reestablish a relationship with the rest of her family.
"I was talking to my sister since 2016 since my book had come out, so we had a relationship," Lloyd said. "I think I just got to a point where you go for so long with not talking, and you kind of are like a ‘Why are we doing this?’ type of thing. I think it was many different factors that contributed to that.
"So she kind of helped break the ice a little bit and sort of be that buffer to my parents and my brother."
Her parents and brother came over to her house for the first time last year, and they have since spent Mother's Day, Father's Day, birthdays and more holidays together.
"I think I was numb to it for many years and just (had) tunnel vision of not sort of letting it penetrate," Lloyd said. "I think when we get older our thoughts change. My parents aren’t getting any younger, and life’s too short. I feel whole again."
The postponement of the Olympics also meant she could take time to rehabilitate her knee without having to rush back into competing against the best players in the world last summer. She was out of action from March 2020 until this past January, when the ferocious dedication she has to training was on full display as she played all 90 minutes in a 4-0 win over Colombia in her first game back.
"I was always set on this, and I think my knee injury came at a good time," she said. "Not that I ever want to be injured, but it gave me a 10-month hiatus to just pause everything.
"I think having that bit of a break, also having the injury, also having people doubt me with my age, I’m like, ‘All right, sure, you want to say I’m too old, I’m gonna rev it up a few notches and come back even better.'"
It culminated in Lloyd, who turns 39 next month, becoming the oldest U.S. women's soccer Olympian in history when she was named to the Olympic roster last week.
"I think I wanted it more than any other world championship or Olympics," she said. "And I don’t know, maybe it’s because it’s nearing the end, this is something that I had my eyes set on since 2012. So I was nervous, anxious, I was waiting for that official roster announcement but truly honored, humbled, grateful to represent the U.S. and put on the jersey. Nothing is ever a guarantee."
Better than ever
Lloyd is the rare athlete who appears to be in better shape at the end of her career rather than the beginning.
She looks at the player she was in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and sees a far cry from what she's become.
"I think it’s just a consistent lifestyle I’ve just never wavered from," she said. "I’ve set out on a mission to be the best possible player that I can be all these years, and I’ve consistently lived and breathed that lifestyle for 17 years.
"Making sure I’m getting enough sleep, making sure I’m hydrating, making sure my nutrition is good, daily ice baths, routine massages. My training is intense. I run a lot, I’m always doing extra work, so I’m always doing more than what everybody else is doing."
She spoke with TODAY while promoting Gone Rogue, whose high-protein chips and snacks have become a staple of her diet.
"As I’ve evolved, I’ve become more lean and fit," she said. "I feel really good. I come down the steps in my house better than I did a couple of years ago, so I think that’s a good sign.
"It’s crazy to think of just 2008, where I was at as a player. Even just the way I looked. I just look so much more fit. I’ve experienced so much, I’ve gone through so much, I’ve overcome so much, and I'm just in such a different place."
She also has adapted on the field to stay as a member of the best women's soccer team in the world. Over the years she played multiple midfield positions before transitioning to her current spot as a forward.
"I think that it goes to show to some of the younger players out there that it’s really difficult to get on this team, to crack this roster, but it’s even more difficult to sustain this level for so long," she said. "It is an absolute grind day in and day out. I can attest to this after 300-and-something caps with this team, 17 years, all that I’ve accomplished, it hasn’t gotten any easier."
Ready for Tokyo
The bitter irony of Lloyd reconnecting with her family ahead of this year's Olympics is that they won't be able to attend in person, and neither will her husband, professional golfer Brian Hollins.
Japanese Olympic officials are not allowing any foreign spectators to attend due to the pandemic, so Lloyd's cheering section will be watching from home. It's actually not a different situation for her considering she played in multiple World Cups and Olympics that her family did not go to because of the rift between them.
"Nobody will be going over, which is crazy," she said. "A lot of people always have their friends and family come over. I typically don’t, but it’s gonna be a strange Olympics. I’m just thankful that it’s still going on."
There also won't be the rabid cheering section for the U.S. team at the games like usual, as only Japanese spectators are allowed to attend the games.
"I don’t like stadiums without crowds," she said. "You feed off of it, you feel the energy. It gets you amped up, so it’s gonna be different, it’s gonna be challenging. You don’t know what to expect, but at the end of the day, you have to adapt and be ready to perform."
On the field, they will be adjusting to the introduction of VAR (video assistant referee) at the Olympics for the first time, which allows calls to be changed or overturned via video replay. The U.S. women's team experienced playing with VAR during their victorious run at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup.
"In certain situations, yes, I think it’s good," Lloyd said. "I’m not a huge fan of as a forward when you’re trying to get in behind the backline, your arms have to kind of go first, and if you’re leaning past that line, it’s called offsides. So that I don’t really love, but I do think it can be used to help catch some things that go unnoticed."
The U.S. team also has a different coach in Vlatko Andonovski, who took over in 2019 for Jill Ellis after she led the team to a pair of World Cup titles.
The USWNT is also trying to break somewhat of a recent curse, in that twice they have won the World Cup before coming up short of winning gold in the subsequent Olympics. After they won the World Cup in 2015, they were stunned in the quarterfinals by Sweden at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"We all know how we felt in Rio," Lloyd said. "I remember coming home and watching the rest of the Olympics on NBC, and I never did that in my career. So I don’t want to come home after this Olympics and do the same thing."
Ready for the big stage
Lloyd has become known for her heroics in the biggest games over the years. She scored the winning goals at the 2008 Olympics, scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Japan to win the 2012 Olympic title and registered an unforgettable hat trick in the championship game of the 2015 World Cup.
What could she possibly do for an encore in Tokyo?
"I don’t think I could ever top that World Cup," she said. "That was its own moment. I don’t think about that moment because we’re in the now, and I just want to focus on that, but you have to be prepared for everything."
There's also the question of whether this will be the last major tournament in one of the most decorated careers in U.S. women's soccer history.
"It’s not gonna be a physical thing for me," she said. "My body’s not breaking down, I feel good, I haven’t lost a step. If anything I’ve gotten even faster and more explosive.
"I think that I’ll know when the time is right. My husband and I want to start a family, and so that has to somewhat happen sooner rather than later. And I also want to live life and do all the things that I haven’t been able to do, so focusing on Tokyo, I know that the road is eventually coming to an end. It’s just going to be a matter of when that exactly is."
With her family now by her side and her fitness at a peak, she is ready for one more run at a gold medal.
"I'm in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s also the happiest I’ve ever felt going into a major tournament," she said. "I’ve felt good and happy going into other tournaments, but this one just feels different."