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At 39, Carli Lloyd Will Be The Oldest U.S. Women's Team Player To Go To The Olympics

Carli Lloyd was recently recognized for 300 career caps — international games — during a match between Nigeria and the U.S. women's national team in Austin, Texas.
Brad Smith/ISI Photos
Getty Images
Carli Lloyd was recently recognized for 300 career caps — international games — during a match between Nigeria and the U.S. women's national team in Austin, Texas.

It's very hard for a team to win either a World Cup, soccer's crown jewel, or an Olympic gold medal. To win those championships back-to-back is "incredibly challenging," says Carli Lloyd, who will nevertheless try to pull off that feat this summer, along with the U.S. Women's national team.

Lloyd, the superstar who is now going to her fourth Olympics, is aiming to bring home the gold. When she embarks on that quest in Tokyo, she'll be 39 — the oldest player the U.S. women's national team has ever sent to the Olympics.

Only a select few teams have been able to hold both the World Cup and Olympic titles at once. Uruguay's men's team won the tournaments in 1928 and '30, for instance. Italy has also pulled off the feat. And the U.S. women, led by Mia Hamm, won gold at the 1996 Olympics before winning the women's World Cup in 1999.

Lloyd and her teammates who were just selected for the Summer Olympics hope to join that elite club, following their 2019 World Cup title with an Olympic gold. Experience is on their side — nearly the entire Olympic roster played in the Cup — but the other side of that edge is age.

"Obviously, we have a lot of experience on this roster, but we're going to need all 18 players to play a huge role in this," Lloyd says.

A third Olympic gold would put another exclamation point on Lloyd's career. FIFA has twice honored her as the best women's player in the world, and she has won two World Cup championships. Lloyd is also one of only three players, male or female, to appear in 300 or more international matches.

Lloyd says she's never been in better shape, despite speculation that she might retire after Tokyo. In an interview with NPR, Lloyd also discusses how the team has changed over the years — and what hasn't.

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Congratulations on making the U.S. women's national team again. Coach Vlatko Andonovski had to skim from a very deep roster, moving from 23 World Cup players down to 18 for the Olympics.

Getting official word just obviously makes you feel good. You just never know. I never want to take anything for granted, or be too overly confident about a situation. But it's good to have the roster announced, and I think we're all feeling at ease and just ready to start the process.

In the first half of Lloyd's career, she played alongside Abby Wambach, one of the most prolific scorers the game has ever seen. Lloyd (left) and Wambach are seen here during a 2011 World Cup match in Germany.
Alex Livesey / FIFA via Getty Images
FIFA via Getty Images
In the first half of Lloyd's career, she played alongside Abby Wambach, one of the most prolific scorers the game has ever seen. Lloyd (left) and Wambach are seen here during a 2011 World Cup match in Germany.

How do you deal with the pressure of essentially trying out for a tight roster for months — and also with the idea that you might be picked over one of your good friends?

I think that's what's very interesting about our team dynamics, because we have often been training for so many years together and having so many camps together. We're a team, and need to come together as a team. But we're also all competing every single day, and there are roster selections that have to happen.

After the 2015 World Cup, we had a lot of people retire and a lot of new players kind of come in. So, it was a bit of a change. Whereas from 2016 on, you're not seeing much turnover from this team. And especially after 2019, there is not a lot of turnover. So it's incredibly difficult to crack this roster of 18.

I think that it was probably a really tough decision from Vlatko. It basically just comes down to performance. Vlatko, takes everything into account, your training sessions, your performance in games, your performance in the NWSL, and bases his decision off of who are going to be the best 18 to go to Tokyo, and the four alternates.

It's difficult. There's obviously going to be some players who are disappointed. But like anything, you've just got to keep grinding. And I know those players will be back in the mix in no time.

You're going to your fourth Olympics, and you will be 39 when you arrive in Japan. How do you keep yourself fit to compete at the international level? I understand that you're a big fan of ice baths, but not weights.

You know, I did weights in college, I think everybody did. I feel that when I came into college, I was this little scrawny, skinny player — you know, agile and all that. And then you start to kind of do all this heavy lifting and feel bulky. And I just felt a bit sluggish. Then getting on to the national team, some of our weight sessions were that as well.

I just never felt great about that. So, I just strictly kept my training to hill sprints, some plyometrics, some jumping — all soccer-specific stuff. Bodyweight exercises, push-ups, sit-ups, TRX [workouts], things like that.

I do have to say, I really believe that because of that, my body has been able to have this longevity throughout my career. I train an insane amount, but not to the point of doing too much and pushing myself to burnout phase. I'm really in tune with my body, and I know when I need to day off, and I know when I need to push myself.

Daily ice baths, routine massages, sleep, hydration, nutrition — I've been saying it all along, it's a consistent lifestyle for 17 years. And that's why I'm still playing. It's no real secret. But I think the discipline to want to do it day in and day out. Some people just can't do that. But that's the choice that I've made.

Both you and Tobin Heath are going to your fourth Olympics. Have you talked with her about it?

I have not, no. I will probably see her shortly, but I'm super thrilled for her. I know it's been a tough year with her injuries. She's someone I would never, ever count out. She'll always be ready. She could be out for a year and [then] be the fittest one and never breathing heavy. So, yeah, I'm excited for her. It's been great to be able to play with Tobin all these years. She's great.

No women's national team has followed a World Cup championship with an Olympic title. What makes that so hard to pull off?

A World Cup is a grueling four-year process to get to that point. We've obviously won the last two. You're on top of the world, everything's great. And then, just to go back up again, you know, it's difficult for teams to do.

It's a tough challenge because you focus all your attention on [the World Cup] and then it's like you have to then get going again and try to go back up that mountain again.

So it's incredibly challenging. If we do it this time around, I don't know if there'll be an asterisk because we kind of had a buffer year [because of the postponed Games]. But, you know, we're going there to win it.

We are still in a pandemic. Have the restrictions given you more time and space to recover from the World Cup and train for the Olympics?

I don't know. I think that I would have been fine. I think that what it gave me was time to just pause everything.

The training bit for me is the easy bit, that's the fun bit. I'm grateful for opportunities and appearances. But flying here, flying there, going to speak here, doing an appearance there, doing media there — that wears on you.

Lloyd has helped the U.S. women continue a dominant run on the world stage. She's seen here trying to spring the ball away from Brazil's Marta in the gold medal match of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Lloyd has helped the U.S. women continue a dominant run on the world stage. She's seen here trying to spring the ball away from Brazil's Marta in the gold medal match of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

From 2015 on, after the World Cup, my life completely changed and I was incredibly busy, having to take every opportunity [that came up].

Also, with a knee injury, the time to just take off definitely rejuvenated me. I think that it kind of hit the reset button. I had a lot of changes throughout. And yes, [the break has] kind of given me a fresh new start.

You're known for stepping up in big moments. But you've also had to adapt to very different expectations from your coaches, including playing in different positions. How have you been able to adjust to the roles you've been asked to play, and still be so successful?

I think the biggest thing for me is just continuing to be the best version of myself. It shouldn't matter who's coaching. It's like, 'Be so good, they can't ignore you,' and almost force them to play you — whether they like you or not, or if you're old, or whatever.

That's just kind of been my mindset all throughout my career. If you're doing well, if you're performing, coach has to play you.

As long as I've given it everything I have in training sessions and games, and been the best version of myself, that's really all I can ask for. The rest is sort of out of my control. That's been my mindset throughout my entire career.

You first played for the national team in the 2005. What are the big differences you see, looking at the team now compared to back then?

I think the culture has remained the same. We are going in as the No.1 team, and we have a target on our back like always. But the culture has always been to win, no matter what, to give it everything we have.

Some games are going to be pretty, some games are not going to be pretty. But as long as we find a way to come together and to win games, that's what we want.

I think now you're seeing more talent, more skill, more finesse, more flair than you were in previous championships. And it was just a little bit of a different era, different time. We've had a lot of younger players come in and really just push the envelope. I think it's been exciting, it's been fun to watch.

We've obviously had to continue to evolve our game, with teams now being very tactically sophisticated. You know, they oftentimes bunker in. They play a five back. They crowd the middle. They make it very difficult and very challenging for us. And that's what we want. We have to find other ways to break down teams, and this tournament is going to be no different.

What about the fight for equal pay? I know there's more equal treatment now of the women's and men's teams, in terms of travel arrangements and things like that. But did you think equal pay would be something that would remain unresolved in 2021?

I think we knew that this was going to take time. I mean, anything takes time when you have courts and lawyers involved. And obviously, you throw COVID into it. I think that we've all wished that it could have been over now, but there's a process to it. I think that we all realize that it does take time, and it takes a lot of effort.

But we're continuing to try to make this a much better environment than when we first came into it.

The U.S. women's national team is bringing a veteran roster to the Tokyo Olympics, including Crystal Dunn (left), Tobin Heath and Lloyd.
Harry How / Getty Images
Getty Images
The U.S. women's national team is bringing a veteran roster to the Tokyo Olympics, including Crystal Dunn (left), Tobin Heath and Lloyd.

In less than a month, the U.S. national team will kick off the Olympics against Sweden — which eliminated the U.S. from the Games in Brazil. What do you think it's going to be like when those two squads step onto the pitch?

I think it's going to be a battle. We just played them recently, tied them in Sweden. Any time we play Sweden, it's always a battle, it's always tough, challenging. I mean, I remember just my entire career playing Sweden. It's always been sort of a rival — a rival you wouldn't really expect. So it's something that we're going to have to gear up for and prepare for. And I think that it was good that we played them recently.

But, yeah, I think you can expect a battle. And those of us that were part of 2016 we're obviously very fired up, because we got the short end of the stick and unfortunately were knocked out from them in Rio.

I have to ask: If all goes well in Tokyo, do you see yourself maybe — maybe — being ready to retire after the Olympics?

I'm just enjoying the process right now, enjoying the moment, savoring it, cherishing it. You know, I'm always calculated with decisions that I'm going to have to make at some point. So, I'm not here to make any decision right now. I simply want to put all my focus on this Olympics, finish out my season with Gotham, the rest of the year with the national team and then just probably take some time to reflect and figure things out.

For me, it's not a physical thing. I think that's what's hard. I think a lot of athletes, when they get a little bit older, they start to have injuries, their body breaks down, they're may be a step or two behind. I have never felt better. I keep saying that, but it's the truth. I feel good, you know? I'm coming down my stairs better than I was two years ago, and it's great.

But at some point, all good things come to an end. It's not going to be a physical thing for me. It's more so going to be a life decision, of wanting to start a family with my husband and spend time with my family and friends.

I've missed out on so many things. You know, my family just now coming out to my 300th cap [international game] and just being able to spend that time together. They had such a good time.

I have no regrets, but I want to start to live my life at some point and just do things that I haven't been able to do. So we'll see what happens.

Will any of your family be able to go to Japan?

There are no foreign spectators allowed to go, so nobody's families will be going.

People loved seeing you nail a 55-yard field goal on an NFL practice field. Is that something you plan on doing again? I will remind you that kicker Adam Vinatieri recently retired at age 48. So, there may be an opening.

I haven't thought about kicking field goals; I've been a little busy. But yeah, that was fun. I didn't know that that was going to blow up the way that it did. I've been able to always pick up something and be pretty good at it. I've always been athletic and that was a fun day, just being able to hit field goals. We'll see — I'm not ruling anything out.

But right now, I'm focusing on that gold medal and just doing my best in Tokyo.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.