Carli Lloyd came home from Rio with a bronze medal.
Not soccer's Carli Lloyd, but volleyball's Carli Lloyd. More on the namesake thing later.
This Carli Lloyd, the one from a small town in north San Diego County with big dreams, was disappointed. And, in the heat of competition, well, she should have been. A setter on the U.S. women's volleyball team, Lloyd and her teammates expected to be playing in the gold-medal match in August. Instead, they had to beat the Netherlands for a bronze.
"We were ranked No. 1 in the world. Along with Brazil, we were supposed to be going for gold," Lloyd said via phone from Italy, where she plays professionally, in October. "It was really hard not to get the gold. I really did feel like we could have and should have gotten it."
But a few months and a continent away from the Olympics, Lloyd has gained some perspective. And much of it came from a group of junior high school kids tucked into a gymnasium at a rural school wedged among tomato fields.
"It was so fun," Lloyd said after visiting her alma mater, Sullivan Middle School in Bonsall, California, earlier this fall. "When I got there, it was a whole other level of joy. The kids were far more enthusiastic than I thought they would be. I just kept looking at their faces. When they asked if they could hold the medal, and I said yes, they looked like a deer in headlights."
It's an opportunity not every sixth-grader – or Olympian, for that matter – gets in a lifetime. But Lloyd's mother, Cindy, is the athletic director at the school and she thought it would be a great idea for her high-achieving daughter to share the love. After all, Carli's name and photos are plastered all over her mother's office and the gymnasium where more than 600 middle schoolers strive daily for their athletic best.
"I didn't (ask her) for her, I did it for the kids," Cindy Tomlinson-Lloyd said. "All the kids wanted to meet her and it was inspiring for them. When she walked into the gym, the kids were overwhelmed. They ran up to her and couldn't believe that she was there."
The moment is one that Carli will treasure. And it is one that made her realize that that bronze medal wasn't a disappointment. It might not have been what she or her teammates expected while prepping for Rio, but it is something to be proud of.
"Being able to look back now, it is really incredible to get any medal at the Olympics," Carli said.
While her visit to Sullivan Middle School allowed Lloyd a revel in her Olympic experience, she has since returned to Italy, where she plays professional volleyball for Pomì Casalmaggiore. And if she felt like a rock star during her visit back home earlier this year, in Italy, she's a full-blown celebrity – recognized everywhere from the grocery store to restaurants to a walk in the park.
That celebrity, of course, stands in stark contrast to the level of recognition afforded her in the U.S. or at the Olympics. In Rio, reporter after reporter stopped Lloyd to talk about her soccer counterpart, the Carli Lloyd who has 230 caps and 90 goals for the U.S. women's soccer team. The Carli Lloyd who turned author. The Carli Lloyd who has won two Olympic gold medals, but did not add a third in Rio.
"I think it's really cool," Lloyd said of sharing a name. "Now I follow her and I think she is really inspiring. I wouldn't have followed a soccer athlete at all, but I think she's really a badass, and she's a great athlete."
The two have never met, despite soccer's Lloyd reaching out via Twitter during the summer. Unfortunately, volleyball's Lloyd doesn't really do social media. Neither athlete stayed in the Olympic Village – the soccer team was housed in a hotel in Belo Horizonte, about six hours north of Rio – while the volleyball team stayed in a Rio hotel.
Back in Italy, Lloyd is loving life. After a collegiate career at Cal capped by being named the AVCA Player of the Year in 2010, she's played professionally for six seasons – five in Italy and one in Azerbaijan. Lloyd is considered the top setter in Italy's professional leagues and her Pomi Casalmaggiore team is the defending Champions League champs. She is highly decorated, having been selected the Champions League best setter for the 2015-16 season as well as earning MVP and top setter distinctions during the 2015 Pan American Games.
She's also in love with Italy – from the food to the culture to the people – and last year began to learn the language so she could communicate and integrate on a more personal level.
The only negative, if there really is one, to this life she's built is the distance it is from her small-town roots. While her uncle, Galen Tomlinson (Turbo on the original American Gladiators) who helped raise her, visits Italy often, her mother does not. Cindy blames it on a fear of flying, though in addition the school year and Italian pro volleyball seasons are in conflict.
But Cindy has no regrets about her youngest being very nearly halfway around the world.
"She is very unique," Cindy said. "People love to be around her. That's the most important thing about her. I really have the best life, the best job, and yet, she brightens it. She makes it a point to be in contact with me every day."
The two stay connected via Skype, FaceTime and text. And though two continents and an ocean separate the pair, they maintain a strong bond.
"My mom really follows my career and she's always 'with' me," Carli said. "So having a chance to do something (visit the school) for her was great."
For all concerned.