When Jillian Loyden was younger, she would practice soccer every day in her family’s garage in Vineland, dreaming of one day playing in the Olympics.
In 1996, she attended the Olympics in Atlanta and fell in love with the U.S. women’s soccer team.
“The Olympics literally changed who she is,” said Loyden’s mother, Tracy Freese.
Sixteen years later, the Vineland native is headed to the Olympics. Loyden recently was named one of four alternates for the U.S. Women’s National Team headed to London this summer.
“It’s crazy how it’s come full circle,” said Loyden, 26. “Especially with all that I’ve gone through the last few months, it really is a good feeling, and I get to experience this with my family — my second family.”
The former Press Girls Soccer Player of the Year, a 2003 graduate of Vineland High School, trained with the United States National Team last month, including stops at Princeton University and in Chester, Pa.
She needed the workouts more than any other player — not because of ability gaps, but because training gave her fleeting chances to dull the pain.
Loyden’s 23-year-old sister, Britton, was killed in February, pushed to her death in what police have characterized as a domestic violence attack. Britton Loyden’s former boyfriend, Ismael Pierce, the father of their 2-year-old son, is charged with her murder and is awaiting trial.
After taking months off to grieve and be with her family, Jillian Loyden is back on the field, constantly thinking about her sister but knowing she’s in the right place.
“I wake up every day, and obviously I miss my sister so much,” Loyden said. “I have hope she is in a better place. She will never hurt again or struggle anymore. Just that assurance that she is in a better place has brought so much peace.”
Loyden returned to the U.S. National Team last month while the squad trained in Bradenton, Fla. The team’s first Olympic game is July 25 against France.
She spent the preceding months with her family in Vineland, getting to know her nephew, Madden. She hopes to have full custody of him one day.
Loyden’s mother currently is raising her grandson, and the two have talked about what it will take for Loyden to get to that point.
“It’s nice to see her back in Jersey and having a relationship with her nephew, but it comes at such a high cost,” Freese said. “Jillian and I had a deal. She had to prove to me to that she could basically do the job. It’s not something you jump right into. She has done everything she can.”
Freese said she and her daughter grieve differently. She said Jillian isn’t one to talk much about Britton’s death, but Freese wants to know everything she can surrounding it.
When Freese looked for Britton when she realized she was missing, she went to Britton’s home and found Pierce with her grandson. She didn’t know it at the time, but Britton’s body was just a few feet away in another room.
“I need to know why it ... how it happened,” Freese said. “Jillian is more laid back. We grieve differently. But at the end of the day, we are family.”
Freese has had difficulty sleeping and leaving her house since her daughter’s death. She’s still in so much pain, she said. But being with her grandson has helped.
Freese said some of her joy comes from Loyden’s visits, and she sees Madden’s eyes light up.
“She has done everything she can,” Freese said. “It’s good for me to see that. I know Britton would be happy with that.”
However, Freese doesn’t want Loyden to give up soccer just yet.
“This is the final cap to the dream,” Freese said. “She has dedicated every part of who she is to be the best.”
Loyden has experienced a nomadic career in search of Olympic glory. After graduating from Villanova University, where she was named Big East Goalkeeper of the Year her senior season, she competed in Women’s Professional Soccer, or WPS, along with many of the best players in the world. Several of them are now her teammates.
She received her first call-up to the National Team in 2010. Loyden competed with them last year and made the World Cup roster as the third goalie. She appeared in one game in the World Cup as a substitute.
But Loyden took time off from the people she calls “20 of my best friends” to be with her family reeling from tragedy.
When Loyden returned to the team, she told her coaches she was focused and ready for a spot on the Olympic roster.
Goalkeeper coach Paul Rogers could pick only two goalies and an alternate out of the five in camp, one fewer spot than the World Cup roster.
“She has been fine,” Rogers said while the team trained in Princeton last month. “I spoke to her a couple of times just trying to figure out where she is mentally. She’s been through a lot and is still going through a lot. And we take that into consideration, but I would argue that she is one of the strongest players on the team when it comes to the mental capacity. I think the players would second that, especially after the World Cup.”
Loyden competes, but she knows soccer isn’t everything in her life anymore. She recently purchased a home in the Deptford area to be closer to her nephew.
Her focus is on soccer, but she doesn’t view the sport — or life — the way she did four months ago.
“I still strive to be the best goalkeeper for myself, but at the end of the day I realize there are much bigger things that need to be worried about, not if I catch a ball or not,” Loyden said.
While Loyden has developed her on-field abilities, her training efforts and motivational qualities played a large role in being selected for London. She’s adored by her teammates and spends extra time working with them after practice.
“I think a lot of people thought she was a little bit slow, but she has great feet, great hands,” said Rogers, who was Loyden’s coach with St. Louis in the now-defunct WPS. “She has come in and really exceeded my expectations, and that has made the competition better.”
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