Golden Child

Cal Setter Carli Lloyd Weathered Early Tragedy With the Help of Her Uncle, Who Is Now Both Her Father Figure and Coach

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It's Friday night, and Haas Pavilion is nearly empty.

Most of the No. 5 Cal volleyball team has showered and departed, its straight-sets victory over Arizona State quickly becoming just another line on the stat sheet. The maintenance crew is taking down the net, and the only sounds are the clacking of folding chairs being stacked and the steady murmur of conversation from the few fans still remaining.

Then, a familiar sight unfolds: a figure with long, blonde hair emerges from the locker room and climbs the steps into the stands to join a man in a gray Cal t-shirt.

No matter the opponent, no matter the outcome, every game is the same in one respect for sophomore setter Carli Lloyd: after the match, it's time to talk to Uncle Galen.

"If it was a hard match and we lost, usually I'll hold on to him for a minute like, 'Oh God, it sucked,'" Lloyd says. "If it was a good match, he'll compliment me on the things I did right and tell me what I did wrong."

When you talk to Lloyd, it becomes obvious immediately that Galen Tomlinson is no ordinary uncle. He is her mentor, her coach and, most importantly, her parent due to the death of Lloyd's father when she was just four years old.

"He moved in shortly after my dad's passing," Lloyd says. "I actually didn't like him at first My mom would tell me that I would cry when he was around and run away. I didn't want him. He scared me, I guess."

It's not hard to imagine a four-year-old being intimidated by Tomlinson, who is best known by the general populace as Turbo from the 1990's television show American Gladiators. Even now he's an imposing man, broad-shouldered and muscular. But turn the conversation to his niece, and his face lights up.

"We were attached at the hip 'til she came up here," Tomlinson says. "We both cried for a month on the phone.

"She's as much mine as any child could be of any parent."

Growing up, Lloyd and her uncle did the things that any father and daughter might do-bike riding, trips to the pool and playing basketball-and a few things that most don't, like lifting weights in the gym and perfecting her technique on the volleyball court.

"My uncle is the most intense coach I've ever had," Lloyd says. "We had a really close connection outside of volleyball, so having him as my coach was really easy. But when he was hard on me, I would get mad at him. We'd fight. But I understand and I respected him so I feel like I became a better volleyball player faster by having a coach I respected."

From early on, Tomlinson recognized her drive to be the best at whatever she did, the very same determination that he knew in himself. As her coach through middle and high school, he pushed her harder and expected more from her in each practice, every game.

And Lloyd responded.

She was a PrepVolleyball Fab 50 selection all four years of high school, took home nearly every MVP and player of the year honor bestowed by the league and jumped to the top of Cal coach Rich Feller's wish list of 2007 recruits.

"The last thing (Feller) said to us when we left here on our first unofficial visit was that she was his number one '07 choice, and that he would wait for her until she made a commitment to someone," Tomlinson says. "And when somebody believes in your child as much as you do, that means a lot."

When Lloyd moved away from her family in Bonsall, Calif., the change was understandably jarring. The freshman had to contend with the pressure of setting two of the top hitters in the country in seniors Angie Pressey and Ellen Orchard, adjusting to the academic rigors of Cal and, of course, dealing with the sometimes overwhelming void left by the absence of her uncle.

"I was really homesick," Lloyd says. "It was hard not having my uncle here He came to the first three practices and sat there and watched, because he wanted to be able to see where I would be and be able to imagine everything There were like two times throughout the year where I would just like break down like, 'I need you back.'"

Things settled down, though, and Lloyd became comfortable running the offense that made it all the way to the semifinals of the 2007 NCAA tournament.

Along the way, she fell just six assists short of breaking the single-season Cal record and garnered Pac-10 All-Freshman honors, accomplishments that have sometimes left her uncle with little advice to impart.

"A couple times I've found myself saying, 'Don't let it go to your head, but dang, you're pretty good,'" Tomlinson says. "In the last 12 months, I expected the growth and maturity in her game to start to taper and slow down some, and it seems like it even accelerated even more."

In those 12 months, Tomlinson and Lloyd also learned to cope with the distance thanks to a good phone plan and lots of plane trips. Lloyd calls her uncle at least three times a day, depending on her schedule, and Tomlinson racks up the frequent flyer miles going to all of her matches, home and away.

But even when they're not together, they're never too far apart in spirit.

"When I do something wrong, it's him in my head telling me, 'You should have done this,'" says Lloyd. "I think about him and what he would say and how he would push me and when he would get on me. I guess I'm even harder on myself than I was before, because now I've made up for both of us."

And when they are together, the scene unfolds about the same each time. Lloyd hugs her niece and nephew, who have been playing hide-and-seek in the corners of Haas Pavilion while she was showering, and asks where they're headed for their post-game meal. Tomlinson follows her out into the cool Berkeley night, follows the niece he calls his "partial twin." They're whole again, at least for now.

"Every parent wants to believe their kid is the golden child," Tomlinson says softly, slowly, as though he is just now absorbing the magnitude of what he's about to say. "And I'm no different. But I believe there to be substantial evidence to indicate that if there is a golden child, it very well could be her."


Contact Katie Dowd at [email protected]

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