In an Olympic Channel exclusive, the two-time Olympic champion and World Cup winner reveals how a kerb gave her a start in football, why she wanted to be an FBI agent and what sacrifices she’s made to make her sporting dreams come true.
After failing to be selected for an U-21 team, the self-styled 'streetballer' from Delran rebounded to become a mainstay of her nation's senior team.
But then a disappointing 2007 World Cup campaign left her dusting herself off again, before achieving unparalleled success - winning al the sport's major honours.
Today, the highlights on her C.V. include: Two-time FIFA player of the year, two Olympic gold medals, all three USA goals in the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 finals, two-time FIFA World Cup champion, and just the second player ever and the only woman to score a hat-trick in the FIFA World Cup final.
Carli spoke exclusively to Olympic Channel show The Corner, where Tom Kirkland and Sam Friedman discuss all things with some of the world’s leading sport personalities. Previous episodes feature the likes of boxing legend Wladimir Klitschko and ski supremo Lindsey Vonn.
OC: You’ve said you started playing sport outside the front of your house and you wore out the kerb! Could you talk a little bit about that?
CL: I was a little girl who loved sports - a typical tomboy. I didn't really enjoy playing with dolls and my priority was sports. I just loved sports. I loved playing football in the yard. I would play basketball across the street at my neighbour's house with their son and the dad. We played soccer in my yard and really were just outside playing and doing everything possible physically, which was a lot of fun when I was younger. But soccer was always my first passion. I loved it. My parents never had to force me to go out in practice or force me to go to training. I would gather up balls that I had, I would go to the local field and would take shots. I wasn't necessarily doing the right technique, but it was that repetition. I’d jump in with boys at the field as well. Some Turkish boys would play on a regular basis, so I would hop in and play with them. And then I had my wonderful kerb, which acted as my wall. And it was hard because the kerb isn't very high, so when you miss it, you've got to run and chase your ball. So I always made it a point to hit the kerb as much as I could. And it kind of became a little bit of a competitive thing for me to do.
OC: Your insane work ethic in training has FBI written all over. Relentless pursuit, calm, yet fierce, fearless. So you did actually want to be an FBI agent. Where'd that come from?
CL: I just always loved watching shows and movies that were crime scenes or things that you had to kind of figure out, a puzzle and you have to dive deep into the mind of people, [to see] why they do different things. I was always intrigued by solving mysteries. I liked watching scary movies as a young young kid. I remember a funny story. My uncle, I think I was probably ten or eleven, and he let me sit down and watch Silence of the Lambs with him! So I guess that's maybe what played into me perhaps wanting to go in there.
OC: You were cut from the U21 soccer team, and you quit for a little bit. Talk about how that experience of coming back is ingrained within your DNA.
Carli: Believe it or not, my work ethic didn't come until later on in my career. I had passion, I had will for the game of soccer, but I didn't understand how hard you have to work in order to become a professional soccer player. So for me, I have the passion and will, which is something that you can't really coach somebody. I just needed somebody to help navigate me through and to teach me all the necessary tools to become the best. And so when I tried out for the U21 national team and it was basically the first team that I didn't make, I was devastated and I immediately pointed the fingers outward at the coaches team-mates. It was everybody else's fault but mine. I didn't look in the mirror and figure out what I could do and the easiest thing for me to do was to quit. But obviously my parents spent a lot of time and money and they knew that I had something special about me. So they didn't want me to quit. So it wasn't until my younger brother was actually playing soccer and their team had this trainer called James Golanas. And my dad just spoke to him afterwards in the parking lot. James ended up giving him his business card because my dad just said, ‘Hey, my daughter is on the brink of quitting the sport. Could you help her?’ And then several weeks later, I finally gave James a call. That was in 2002 and then over the winter break is when we started working together because I was in college at Rutgers and he devised a plan for me, he told me that I have to work hard every single day. He told me that this has to become my number one priority ahead of everything. And as long as I do that and have a better work ethic and have better character and become mentally tough, I can go on to become the best player in the world. So for the first time in my career, I'd finally met somebody who really believed in me.
And one step at a time, we were able to conquer that. So it was a huge life changing moment for me. But James knew that I had that streetballer mentality in me. You know, having grown up in Delran, he knew that I had the potential but I didn't have the work ethic and the discipline. And that's what he changed and helped transform my life and my game.
OC: And what would you say to young athletes out there that are trying to pursue their dreams and dealing with the inevitable ups and downs?
CL: Nothing in life that's worthwhile ever comes easy. Much of my career has been really hard and there's been a lot of people who have never thought that I could get to this point. There's been a lot of doubters throughout this period in my career. I wouldn't want it any other way because it makes it that much more special in the end, knowing that you've been able to overcome so many different things, whether that's injuries, whether that's a coach not playing you or benching you, or people wanting to see you fail and people doubting you. It makes it that much sweeter in the end when you just focus on you and control the controllables and work hard and give it everything you have and know that it's just a building block to the top. It’s getting you stronger and stronger every single day by being able to persevere. So I, for one, along with many other athletes around the world, don't have it easy. And it's a constant mental game. And you have to be able to to understand that things are going to be thrown at you that you least expect. And you just have to hit him head on and persevere and deal with them. Roll the sleeves up and just be OK with it.
OC: You mentioned sacrifice and nothing is this is a greater sacrifice than a relationship that you had in high school. You had to put it on hold and now you're husband Brian, I've read he's an unsung hero, as are many spouses in a power relationship. But you don't really get there without having that person supporting you through everything.
CL: Absolutely. He's been my rock. He's believed in me. Back when we were in high school together and we were uber competitive… in fact we’re still super competitive!
I don't compete with him at golf because that’s his sport that he's got me on. But we've had an unbelievable relationship. Obviously, we’ve gone through some really tough, challenging times, navigating through high school and then college and then me being a professional soccer player, it hasn't been easy. But again, if you know, if you love one another like we did, we wanted to make it work and we knew that it was going to take a lot of work. But you also need people in your corner who are going to support you, and if you don't have people who are super supportive of what you do, you can't be the best version of you. So I think the biggest thing with both of us is making sure that we both support one another so that we are able to be the best that we ultimately can be. And it's a partnership. It won't work if it's not a partnership. So I'm very thankful that for 15 years he has sat behind the scenes and has been my biggest cheerleader and has supported me and hasn't complained once about me having to go out and train at ten o'clock at night on a Friday, or having to wake up early before flying off somewhere. So I'm super thankful of that.
OC: You have athletics and you have a training regimen, but what about, like, the normal guys like us? When when life throws stuff at you, what can we do?
CL: What we're going through right now is affecting so many people. I think the biggest thing is you've got to be in the present moment. I think we're all not used to this slow pace and things slowing down in sports, not on TV and parents not carting their kids off everywhere. I mean, everything's literally shut down. And so I hope that people have taken this time to appreciate the things that they do have on a normal basis and realise that you really don't need much to make you happy. You have to be able to adapt to life. Life is not perfect. None of us have life figured out. We never will. That's the beauty of just growing and living every single day. But being present in the moment and just trying to take one day at a time, one thing at a time. I've never slowed down in my entire life. And I'm finding other things to fill my mind with. I'm reading more and I'm enjoying nature and just being outside of my house and listening to the birds chirp. So, there's just a lot of things, I think that you can learn in this type of situation to be able to find other ways to help you grow and become better.
OC: What do the Olympics mean to you? Going after one of the most coveted medals in the world… Why does that experience matter to you?
CL: The Olympics is something so incredibly special. It's amazing because you're representing your team and your country. But it's bigger than that. You've got the whole country watching, and it's something so indescribable to be able to win a gold medal and then stand on top of the podium and receive that medal being placed around your neck. Once you’re an Olympian, you’re always an Olympian, and people really thrive off of the Olympics.
OC: You've had so many huge international moments. Your goal in the Beijing 2008 Olympic gold medal match... do you play that back a lot in your mind? It was unbelievable.
CL: Well, as an athlete I tend to have tunnel vision and I finish one thing and then I'm gearing up for the next thing. And you can't really dwell on things in the past. And so for me the 2007 World Cup was a major disappointment for our team. I went through a really tough and challenging time with my first major tournament. So the Beijing 2008 Olympics, I was in the starting line up, I played every minute of that tournament. I wasn't a super fit back then. But you've got to find that sixth gear and never give up. And so during this quarantine time, the 2008 gold medal game against Brazil was being replayed. So it was the first time I watched it properly since the 2008 final.
But that Olympics was really special for a couple of reasons. One, we were coming off a really poor 2007 World Cup. And we were obviously playing without Abby Wambach, who was a huge, huge star on our team and obviously was a tough thing. But everybody counted us out because she wasn't going to be there because she suffered a broken leg. So we had to rally together as a team. And in my opinion, everybody played a role in winning that tournament against Brazil in the final. They were at their peak. They were good. They had chances. I remember us just digging deep. I remember the game ending. And we see Brazil all curled over and we're like, all right, they're tired.
So to have finally scored in that 96th minute, I found that sixth gear. What makes me special is just finding, finding an opportunity and seizing that moment.
OC: What does the postponement of the Olympics mean for you?
CL: Obviously it was a stressful couple weeks because you're hearing rumours of perhaps cancellation. I would've been absolutely devastated, as I'm sure so many other people would have if it was entirely cancelled. Thankfully, it wasn't. I know the amount of headache that it probably was to postpone this. The Olympics is a little different because the NBA season and all other sports seasons have a season every year. The Olympics is every four years. You've got athletes who are really detail oriented about when they peak. As a soccer player, it's not that big of a deal. It's another year where we have to go through the grind again and all that. But I look at it as an opportunity. I look at it as there's more time for me personally to get fit and stronger and sharper and better as a player. I know our team is going to have more time to do it together as well to get better.
I'm nearing the end of my career, so I'm excited to kind of have another year with a big goal at the end. Hopefully if I make the team, with winning another gold medal with my teammates and then perhaps flying off into the sunset.
OC: Gender equality is a foundation of the IOC, but how do you think the world is doing with that?
CL: I think it's a growing conversation. I think that we're not quite there yet. I think that so many women across so many platforms, in so places all around the world are still fighting for it. So it's not to say that we as women don't love putting up a good fight. But I think it's something that we're going to have to continue to push and continue to make better and just continue to make the next generations coming through of women and young girls, a place where they can thrive and they can be treated fairly.
We all have a voice. I'm all about pushing for things, wanting to make things better. Collectively, our team is doing a phenomenal job of being united on that front and doing what we can to to help make things better. And I think we're fighting for our own issues and things that we want to see get better. But it's also giving other women across the globe more confidence in their respective areas to keep pushing on and making things better as well.