Jillian Loyden never dreamed she'd be where she is today. She never dreamed growing up in Vineland, New Jersey, that she would play professional soccer. She never dreamed she'd represent her country in the World Cup or Olympics.
"I was always the tall kid," she said. "I was never on the (youth) national teams."
She played her youth soccer in Vineland, choosing goalkeeper because she hated running and it was the position that involved the least amount of running.
"I was only recruited by Rutgers and Villanova." said Loyden, who chose Villanova, where she started to excel after taking over the starting goalkeeper spot in 2004. "I got some good coaching and started to blossom."
Playing professionally wasn't even on her radar at that point.
"To play at that level wasn't an option until I was a senior in college. I heard of the WPS (Women's Professional Soccer, a pro league from 2009 through 2011), attended the combine, and was recruited."
Loyden went to Saint Louis Athletica 37th overall in the 2009 draft. She was coached there by Jorge Barcellos, who at the time was the head coach of the Brazilian Women's National Team. She credits Barcellos for helping her take her game to the next level: the United States Women's National Team.
"I was wearing a heart rate monitor, and it was in the red zone during training. Someone asked me if I was nervous, and I was like 'Yeah of course!'," she said with a laugh. "I made a big save early on and was fine."
The US won that match 2-1, and the following year Loyden was in the Women's World Cup in Germany. While she was there, she was more impressed with playing in the giant stadiums in places like Dresden and Wolfsburg.
"It didn't really hit me until we were back in the U.S. how big of an event it was."
Loyden was happy to see how big Women's Soccer had gotten in the States, and was eager to help it grow. Winning the gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics was also an amazing moment for her, however the mood was tempered. "Winning the gold medal was really special, but it meant more to my family" due to the death of Jillian's sister Britton, who was murdered earlier that year by her fiancee.
The Jillian Loyden Foundation was started in 2012 after the death of Britton Loyden. The foundation's aim is "to serve and provide resources and aide to children who have faced unfavorable circumstances." The main focus is to combat domestic violence and to educate against it.
"I didn't know what domestic violence was. I knew it was abuse, but I didn't know the scope of it." said Loyden, who went on to say that one in four women are effected by domestic violence - including herself. "I realized I was a victim" she said, referring to the domestic violence that took her sister, "and I decided to help."
She has spoken to thousands of people across the country, sharing her message of hope and inspiration, and educating people about the warning signs of domestic violence - and ways out.
I asked her what ordinary people could do to help.
"Have conversations about it with people. No one spoke about it when I was growing up. There's such a stigma around it - parents are afraid to talk about it with their kids," Loyden said. "Educate yourself on the warning signs. Ask parents and counselors about domestic violence, and know your voice is important."
The future is bright for Jillian Loyden. She recently filled in as the color commentator for the Philadelphia Union while JP Dellacamera was calling matches in the 2015 Women's World Cup. I asked her if it was difficult as an ex-player watching the tournament and she said that it wasn't difficult for her to watch, and that she "got really emotional because she’s so happy for her friends. To see younger players come up and get their chance, it was awesome seeing that." I also asked her if we'd see more of her doing color commentary. "We'll see" she said, noting that while she was uncomfortable about it at first, she felt like she was growing into it. "So far it's been fun."
She also coaches at Widener University in Chester and is the founder and director of The Keeper Institute in Sewell, New Jersey, both of which allow her to channel her "passion to help the next generation of goalkeepers." She points to Real Salt Lake 'keeper Nick Rimando as one of her favorites because "he reminds me a lot of myself." She said that Brad Guzan had "earned the right" to be the US men's goalkeeper, and that Bill Hamid was a great shot-stopper. On the women's side, she tipped Ashlyn Harris as potentially being the next great American goalkeeper, saying "she's always watching and studying the game" especially Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.