When former soccer star Mia Hamm returned to her hometown of Selma, Ala., last winter, she was presented with a key to the city.
When Carli Lloyd, the U.S. team's current star, returned to Burlington County, N.J., after last summer's World Cup, she was presented with the key to the Evesham Township Recreational Facility.
It may have been the most appropriate gift she's ever received, given that Lloyd has spent more hours in the rec center than anywhere else near her South Jersey home.
"Every morning, we're here," said James Galanis, Lloyd's personal coach. "This is what built her. There's no fancy gyms. There's no nothing.
"Just drills that make you better."
Those drills have helped transform Lloyd from someone who was unceremoniously cut from an age-group national team to the best women's player in the world. A lot of that happened here, in a drafty building locals refer to as the blue barn.
On a chilly mid-June morning, Lloyd's workout consisted of little more than kicking a soccer ball off the dull hardwood basketball court and against the gym's power-blue walls. For more than 90 mind-numbing minutes, the only sound in the building was the loud thwack of the synthetic leather ball striking the concrete-block wall.
"Miss Lloyd," urges Galanis, who after 13 years still addresses her formally, "do some outside the footers. First touch."
Six weeks into her rehab of a sprained ligament in her right knee, and six weeks before the U.S. team's Aug. 3 opening game in the Rio Olympics, Lloyd could handle more vigorous and challenging exercises. But Galanis, who turned himself into a professional player in his native Australia by kicking a ball against a wall, preaches the importance of repetition. So Lloyd repeats the drill.
"Yeah it's passing, it's juggling, it's kicking it up against a wall," Lloyd said. "And most people would be like, 'That's super easy'. But what they don't realize is we're actually breaking down everything like a golf swing.
"So the way that I pass, the way that I dribble, the way that I shoot — everything is broken down, technique-wise, to make it efficient."
Lloyd's trust in Galanis is unwavering, earned after he took a talented but undisciplined young woman ready to quit the sport and turned her into one of the most clutch, big-game scorers in soccer history.
"He's definitely a guru. Some people call him a wizard," Lloyd said of her coach. "It's just amazing that his brain can continually come up with things .... A lot of what we do, it's not scientific. There's nothing really complicated about it. Just build a base and continue to [add] layer upon layer of running and drills and all that. He's one of a kind, to be sure."
He's why Lloyd does almost 1,000 sit-ups and 500 push-ups each day. He's why she celebrated her FIFA world player of the year award in January with an early morning workout the next day. And before the last Olympics, he was the one who induced Lloyd to sneak out of her Scottish hotel before dawn each morning to run wind sprints on people's lawns.
"People don't know about that," Galanis said with a grin.
But if Galanis improved Lloyd's skills and fitness, his most important work has been with her mind.
"When you get to [this] level, everybody's fit, everybody's skilled, everybody knows the game," Galanis said. "What separates you is your mental abilities. And that's where Carli is just too strong."
Galanis, 45, draws Lloyd's name out as CAAH-li, his thick Australian accent undiluted by 17 years living in South Jersey. The lithe build he had when playing for South Melbourne in Australia's first division has expanded, however, and his once-rebellious shoulder-length hair has been tamed.
Galanis pays his bills by running an elite youth academy and has worked with other top-level players, among them national team players Julie Johnston and Heather Mitts, former MLS player Ryan Finley and Colombia's Yoreli Rincon. But he says he's never taken a dollar from Lloyd, 34.
The two were introduced by Lloyd's father, who was trying to keep his daughter from quitting soccer after she was cut from the U.S. U-23 team. Galanis saw a raw talent in need of polish and his soft-spoken but brutally honest critique was literally life-changing for Lloyd.
"I think I was just waiting for someone like him to come around," Lloyd said. "I had all these coaches saying, 'Oh, you can make it,' and I was like, 'OK, well I need somebody to help me get there.'
"When I got with him, it was just instinct. He has a way about him. [He] gives you something positive but then also says 'Hey, if you work these things, your character, your fitness, your mental toughness, you can go on to become the best player in the world.'"
That prediction came true in January when FIFA summoned Lloyd to Zurich, where she shared a stage and a spotlight with Lionel Messi when the pair were named the male and female players of the year.
While many would have seen such an award as the crowning achievement of their career, Lloyd sees it as a stepping-stone to even greater things. She and Galanis had long looked at the Rio Olympics as their last major tournament, but now they've recommitted themselves to pushing toward another World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.
Lloyd has repeatedly silenced her doubters, having scored gold medal-winning goals in the last two Olympics, something no player – male or female – had ever done. After failing to score a goal in the group stage of last summer's World Cup, she scored six times in four knockout-round games to lift the U.S. to its first title in 16 years.
Before that tournament, Galanis found a magazine story that listed 30 players to watch – a list that didn't include Lloyd. Just before the final with Japan, he shared it with her.
"I said 'Take a look. You've got to prove these guys wrong,'" he remembered. Lloyd did just that, scoring three times in the first 16 minutes – the fastest hat trick in a World Cup final – to lead a 5-2 rout of Japan.
Eleven months later, back in the empty Evesham Township rec center, Lloyd thinks about her detractors as she silently kicks a ball against a wall, her back to a 20-foot-wide tribute painted above the far basket that proclaims the arena Carli Lloyd Court.
For more than a dozen years, Lloyd and Galanis had to beg for access to the building, then had to wait for someone to let them in. Even her neighbors didn't believe in her. After the World Cup, the township painted her name on the wall and gave her a key, leaving Lloyd feeling both vindicated and thankful.
"Without this blue barn, my career wouldn't be probably half as good as what it is," Lloyd said. "These walls, believe it or not, have come in handy."
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