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After reaching peak, Carli Lloyd finds more motivation, eyes greater legacy at Olympics

USWNT star Carli Lloyd is known for her 2015 Women's World Cup performance, but she's not done cementing her legacy.

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — Old news.

That’s the term Carli Lloyd uses to describe her hat trick in last year’s World Cup final, which the U.S. won 5-2 against Japan. Don’t get her wrong: Lloyd knows it was the greatest day of her career. But she’s also acutely aware that making it to the top as World Cup champion and World Player of the Year will only mean so much if she and the U.S. can’t sustain that level at the Olympics starting Wednesday against New Zealand (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“When the World Cup finished I rode the wave for a little bit,” Lloyd said in a quiet corner of the team hotel here on Tuesday. “But I think with every great player and every championship player the mindset is: What’s next? So for me finishing that World Cup, I’m like, Rio’s next … I still have a lot more that I personally want to achieve, and I don’t want people to just be like, ‘Hey, that was the girl in the World Cup final.’”

“I want my legacy to be over multiple tournaments. So I’ve got another four years.”

Lloyd, 34, has a few specific goals. She wants to win the Olympic gold in 2016, the World Cup in 2019 and finish her career with another Olympic triumph in 2020. And she wants to add to her World Player of the Year trophies, not once but multiple times.

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"Legacy" is part of Lloyd’s motivation now. And while it’s worth noting that her career has had more than one standout year—Lloyd did score the winning goals in the 2008 and ’12 Olympic finals—speaking to Lloyd about how she motivates herself is a fascinating exercise.

What it comes down to is this: When you’ve always driven yourself with the words of doubters, real and imagined, how do you keep doing that when everyone knows you’ve reached the pinnacle of your sport?

“I think they’re all around,” Lloyd says, before adding with a laugh: “Maybe sitting next to me. That’s what happens when you get to the top. You’re a case for people wanting to see you fail. Whether it’s internal motivation for me to keep going, that’s who I am, that’s what I’m about. But I’ve also put a lot of work in over the years, a lot of training when no one was watching, just having dedicated my entire life. So not to continue to get better and not push on would be a disservice to all the work I’ve put in.”

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Lloyd’s standing is so secure right now that it’s easy to forget that four years ago coach Pia Sundhage left a healthy Lloyd on the bench to start the Olympic opener against France. As fate would have it, Shannon Boxx went down with an injury just 17 minutes into the game (with France leading 2-0), and Lloyd came in to score a goal in a furious comeback to win 4-2.

Lloyd played every minute of the rest of the Olympics and finished with four goals, two of them in the final. U.S. Soccer has never had a clutch player like her.

“2012 was one of the biggest turning points in my career on a lot of different levels,” Lloyd says. “I realized at that point that I need to go to tournaments alone and not have any friends or family or boyfriend or fiancé there. I realized I couldn’t take my foot off the pedal. If I have one bad half, one bad game, I could get yanked, and that’s exactly what happened [in the U.S.’s last pre-Olympic friendly]. I had to crawl my way back. I didn’t know if I was going to get in, didn’t know if my career was going to continue.”

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Now Lloyd wants to extend that career as long as possible. Her plan is to play through the 2020 Olympics at age 38. At a time when some of the world’s best women’s soccer players are retiring in their 20s—the U.S.’s Lauren Holiday, Germany’s Celia Sasic, France’s Louisa Nécib (she'll step away after the Olympics)—Lloyd is a prominent exception who’s fanatical about her fitness these days. Despite being out with a knee injury earlier this year, she says she’s “more prepared going into this tournament than probably any other tournament I’ve been a part of, just as far as feeling fresh and ready to go.”

She says this U.S. team is ready, too. Lloyd has a quick response when asked, True or false: The current U.S. women’s national team plays better soccer than the World Cup champions did.

“I’d say true, for sure,” Lloyd replies. “The style of play has changed immensely, as well as the personnel. We’ve got a lot of different people playing. We are a more sophisticated team. We find different ways to break teams down. Our defense has still been improving. They were so solid and amazing, the back four and Hope [Solo], during the World Cup, and I think they’re even better now, especially on the flanks and being able to attack out wide. Overall, the talent and depth is there. The biggest thing is going to be the mental aspect of the game, keeping these younger players confident.”

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There are other topics on Lloyd’s mind, too. Topics like equality. She would like to see the Olympics have the same number of women’s teams as men’s teams, which isn’t the case right now with the 12-team women’s soccer tournament and the 16-team men’s event. “Hopefully in 2020 it will be even and equal,” she says.

And then there’s the U.S. players’ ongoing wage discrimination complaint against U.S. Soccer. In a year when “equal pay for equal work” has become a hot-button issue in U.S. society, Lloyd says there’s a chance the U.S. players will make a public statement about their case if they win the gold medal. They have already been pictured in EQUAL PLAY EQUAL PAY T-shirts earlier this year.

“Right now, first and foremost we’re focusing on Rio,” Lloyd says. “We’re honored to be here and be a part of it, so it’s not really the right time and place to bring that out. [But] I’m not saying that after we win a gold medal maybe some of us don’t have some T-shirts on or talk about it. Of course the topic will probably come up, but we have to take care of business first.”