IN THE SOUTHEAST corner of Portugal, in a tiny stadium wedged between the beach, a lighthouse and the river frontier with Spain, Carli Lloyd was wearing a smile and a shiner under her left eye. It was March 2015, months before Lloyd's hat trick against Japan in the Women's World Cup final would electrify a U.S. TV audience of 26.7 million, and yet the performance she had given against Norway that night in the town of Vila Real de Santo António was just as revealing, perhaps more so, considering how few people—just a couple hundred—were there to see it.
The U.S. had lost twice in recent games, 3--2 to Brazil and 2--0 to France, and had fallen behind Norway 1--0 at the half when Lloyd decided to take over the match. With a scowl as fearsome as the black eye she'd picked up in her previous game, Lloyd lashed home the equalizer from outside the box with her left (weaker) foot. Then a few minutes later she calmly struck the penalty that would become the game-winner. "I'm sick of losing," she said afterward. "I'm sick of all the naysayers saying, You're [only] second in the world—the U.S. is done. I'm a winner, and I want to go out there and win."
In 2003, at age 21, Lloyd considered quitting soccer after she was cut from the U.S. Under-21 team. But she listened when her new mentor and personal coach, James Galanis, told her about Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee, who all trained when nobody was watching, by which he meant going above and beyond what others were doing while away from the national team. It resonated with her, and so she did the same. Since then Lloyd and Galanis have trained during the off-season twice a day, seven days a week, including on holidays—knowing full well that the competition is not.
If a player trains when nobody is watching, she might be able to do superhuman things when the entire world is watching. Like scoring a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of a World Cup final, an eventual 5--2 victory over Japan. Or topping off that hat trick with an astonishing 50-yard strike from midfield, the greatest goal in U.S. soccer history, a shot so audacious that it's surprising to learn that Lloyd had actually practiced it for years with Galanis on an empty field in New Jersey, far from any crowds. If the greats are measured by how they perform on the most important occasions, then Lloyd now deserves her place among them. That's what happens when you score six goals in the final four games of World Cup 2015, raising your level as the stakes get higher. That's what happens when you have scored the winning goals in two Olympic finals, in 2008 and '12. And that's what happens when you pull off one of the greatest individual performances ever in a World Cup final, men's or women's.
For those reasons Lloyd is a deserving choice as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's 2015 Sportswoman of the Year. She answered the call when nobody was watching. She answered the call when everyone was watching. In doing so, she and her World Cup champion teammates taught us a lesson about the paradigm of excellence, all while including an entire nation on the journey. Her Cup—their Cup—was indeed our Cup. When President Obama honored the team at the White House in October, he said, "Playing like a girl means you're a badass." Carli Lloyd fits the part.
For the next five weeks The Case for ... will feature a Sportsman of the Year Candidate. Find more nominees at SI.com/sportsman
In 2003, at the age of 21, Lloyd considered quitting soccer after she was cut from the U.S. Under-21 team.