By Lincoln Shryack
When Team USA starting setter Carli Lloyd stepped onto the court last Tuesday night in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the opening match of the FIVB Nations League tournament against Poland, she did so as the reigning USA Volleyball Female Athlete of the Year. But that fact shouldn’t obscure the difficult hurdles Lloyd had to clear since earning the award.
The 2016 Olympian served as captain for Team USA in 2017, leading a young roster missing most of its Olympians to the FIVB World Grand Prix finals, and helping her squad earn the bronze medal at the season-ending FIVB Grand Champions Cup. The star setter had taken a crucial step forward in the first season of the Olympic quad.
But the breakout season for Lloyd ended on a sour note, as a shoulder injury sustained in the Champions Cup in late summer required off-season surgery to repair a torn labrum. The realities of professional athlete life came crashing down on the 28-year-old after playing some of the best volleyball of her career— with recovery to her shoulder forcing her away from the gym for months, she would have to miss most of the upcoming club season.
Lloyd chose to opt out of the two-year contract she had signed with Turkish club Fenerbahce Istanbul just months earlier.
Carli Lloyd is one of a record-number 413 international transfers that USA Volleyball has processed allowing U.S. citizens to play in overseas pro leagues. Where are your favorite U.S. National Team and former @NCAAVolleyball athletes playing? List | https://t.co/2jNCPmTNEu pic.twitter.com/nU5pU8Givr— USA Volleyball (@usavolleyball) January 31, 2018
Suddenly, a top player in the prime of her career from one of the best teams in the world was looking for a job with the club season already underway.
Lloyd was facing not just a lengthy recovery from the surgery, but also the knowledge that she would be joining her next team at an awkward point in the year, right as the playoffs would be starting up. A new system, new coaches, and new teammates—details that are typically hammered out early in the season during the fall—instead would all have to be acquainted with on the fly.
Lloyd was looking at an uncertain start to 2018 to say the least. Even so, Lloyd was ready to take on the challenge.
After dealing with a pair of stress fractures in her shins early in her national team career that kept her off the court and forced her to confront a resulting depression, Lloyd was now much better-equipped to handle the stresses of not being able to play volleyball. She had fought through her mental and physical difficulties back then by leaning on those closest to her, and knowing that made this process a much smoother experience.
“I really felt like I’ve stayed positive through that experience because of my previous experience with it, an injury where I just kind of lost it completely. So I felt really good. I felt really supported by our USA staff, by our athletic trainer and our lifting coach,” Lloyd said.
“I felt like I was just so supported in the gym and also my family being close by. I had a really great support group to get me through that process. It went a lot smoother than I’ve seen other people experience when they have to get a surgery.”
Lloyd’s uncle and mother—the two people she credits most for her success up to this point—had always been right beside her when she was struggling, on the court and off, and knowing that they would once again be beside her through the thick and thin of injury recovery helped make the healing process a smooth one.
“Having them with me through this whole process has been incredible and I truly feel like I’m luckiest kid in the world. I think a lot of kids would say that, but I just think they’re incredible. They’re a great balance to each other and they’ve given me a lot. I’m really thankful for both of them,” Lloyd said.
Once she did return to health, in January, offers from European clubs began to pour in. Lloyd had played the majority of her professional career in Italy, and returning to a place where she had familiarity and spoke the language seemed like a logical choice during the middle of the season.
But she had other ideas. An offer from the Brazilian club Hinode Barueri presented Lloyd with the opportunity to try something different, a chance to experience a new country, a new coaching staff, and an entirely different style of play. The shoulder injury had caused Lloyd to take a U-Turn away from her initial plans, but she decided to take advantage of the setback by following the road in front of her. It led to Brazil.
“I missed a really big chunk of that 2017-18 season overseas, and when I was healthy and ready to go, I had offers in Europe, and I also had this one come up in Brazil,” said Lloyd. “I felt like it was the right time for me to try something a little bit different and to go to a place that I had never played before, and for a coach that has had an amazing coaching career all over the world.”
That coach was Brazil national team head coach José Roberto Guimarães, known in the volleyball world as Zé Roberto, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and owner of one of the most storied coaching careers in volleyball history. The chance to play for Zé Roberto on Hinode Barueri was too good to pass up.
“When I got that offer, I just felt like it was the right thing for me to do. To see if I liked another country, and be challenged by a different coach, a different coaching style,” said Lloyd.
Of course, Lloyd’s expedited adjustment period in Brazil wasn’t always easy. The Barueri team had been playing together for months when Lloyd arrived in January, and she hadn’t played a real volleyball game since the previous September. She had to learn the team’s style of play under Zé Roberto while shaking off her cobwebs, and to make matters worse, she didn’t speak Portuguese, the native language of Brazil and most of her team.
“I had never been on a team where Portuguese was the main language,” said Lloyd. “Luckily, my coach spoke Italian and I can speak Italian. So we were able to communicate that way, but the girls, most of the girls were speaking Portuguese and I didn’t understand a lot of what was happening for the first couple weeks.”
Even while facing a unique set of obstacles, Lloyd found her place in Brazil. In the midst of poor play before her arrival, Hinode Barueri closed out the regular season in the Superliga with a 5-1 record in the team’s final six games. Although her abbreviated season ended with a quarterfinal loss in the playoffs, Lloyd returned to the United States with a wave of excitement from her time with the team and how she was able to turn what looked like a lost season into a productive one.
“I honestly just left with an amazing feeling of just really being accepted and encouraged by a team that had already been a team for awhile, and that’s just something special that they were able to do,” she said.
Now fully healthy and with her time with Hinode Barueri complete, Lloyd is focused on using the lessons gained from her adversity to make 2018 another special season with the USA national team. Her time away from the court during the club season reinforced her ability to conquer the mental barriers that the sport has put in her way, yet another reminder of the support system she has in her family and coaches.
With their help, Lloyd remains confident in her ability to tackle the stresses of playing world-class volleyball, focusing on short-term goals instead of getting caught up in the vastness of all she’s trying to achieve.
Lloyd’s injury also helped her to learn something else about herself— she loves playing in Brazil. After the 2018 national team season wraps up in October, Lloyd will return to Brazil, with yet another brand new team awaiting her.
“I really enjoyed my time there, and the level of volleyball I feel like is a really good level of volleyball. I’m looking forward to going back.”