RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — About the same time that future U.S. Olympic volleyball player Carli Lloyd was born 27 years ago, her uncle was discovered by a talent scout in Southern California.
Galen Tomlinson was invited to try out for a new show called American Gladiators for a chance to be one of the beefed-up, spandex-clad superheroes, taking on mortal contestants in an imaginative series of physical contests.
Tomlinson won a role. He was named "Turbo" and became a cult hero. But the bravest role he played was far off camera: stepping in to help raise Lloyd and mold her into an Olympic athlete.
It is debatable which one is more famous, today's U.S. Olympian or yesterday's American Gladiator. But it is clear how much they mean to each other.
"She understood his belief in her, and it made her believe in herself, and those two went off and conquered the world," Cindy Lloyd, Carli's mother and Tomlinson's half sister, said. "It was awesome to sit back and watch."
The U.S. women's volleyball team is trying to win gold at the Olympics for the first time. Carli Lloyd, often confused for the U.S. soccer star with the same name, is a backup setter. Tomlinson, still gladiator-fit at 55, with streaks of gray in his Superman-styled dark hair, is a big presence in the stands.
"I attribute me being here to him more than anyone else," Lloyd said.
They are practically inseparable. He was her first coach and her constant workout partner. When she moved on to other coaches and left for college, he was still there at every match, sitting in his usual spot, giving nods and signals in a language that only the two of them share.
Lloyd calls him Uncle. But Tomlinson is the only father figure she has ever known.
Lloyd was 4 when her father committed suicide, leaving Cindy to raise three children. Tomlinson, by then a twice-divorced father and a star on American Gladiators, had time on his hands.
Tomlinson and his daughter, then 10, moved in with Cindy and her three children in Bonsall, Calif., north of San Diego. The move was considered temporary, to help Cindy get her life reorganized. Tomlinson never left.
"After a couple of months, it dawned on me, and I said after the kids went to bed, 'Cindy, I want to talk to you,' " Tomlinson said. "I said, 'Everyone's getting really comfortable with this. I think it would be wise for us to either leave now, before they lose another male role model, or we've got to make a commitment that our extracurricular activities get put on hold until the youngest (Carli) graduates high school.' "
Tomlinson and Cindy, who had the same father but different mothers, still live together more than 20 years later. "I can't get rid of him," Cindy said with a laugh.
When Tomlinson's daughter, Kourtney, was in fifth grade, she wanted to play volleyball. Cindy's oldest daughter, Coral, about a year younger, followed. Tomlinson decided he could do a better job than their coaches. He taught himself the intricacies of the game and studied respected coaches at tournaments. When Carli Lloyd started playing a few years later, he was an experienced coach.
It was not always harmonious. The relationship between a child and a parent who also coaches can be fraught with frustration, disappointment and resentment.
"I wouldn't say it was perfect," Lloyd said. "We're both pretty sensitive and stubborn. But it works. I love him, and he loves me, and it works because we want it to."
There have been strains. A combination of stress fractures in her shins and struggles fitting in with the U.S. team, coached by volleyball legend Karch Kiraly, sent Lloyd into a spiral of depression. Lloyd, with Tomlinson's encouragement, had grown up setting with quick movements of her fingers and wrists. The team wanted her to adopt a method with more arm extension, a change of form not unlike asking a pitcher to alter his throwing motion or a basketball player to adjust her shot.
Lloyd struggled. Her standing on the national team dropped over a couple of years, until it looked as if her long-standing Olympic aspirations had evaporated. She was in a kind of funk that Tomlinson had never seen.
"I remember telling her mom: 'I've lost my little girl. She's not the same,' " Tomlinson said.
But Lloyd pulled through over the past year, developing the mental toughness to match the physical toughness she had always had. By last winter in Italy, she seemed to Tomlinson to be her old self, dedicated to trying to make the Olympic roster.
"I'm going to make their decision as hard as I can," she said.
In July, Kiraly named his 12-member team. Three setters, instead of the usual two, made the squad, and Lloyd was one. Kiraly said she represented a new breed of physical setter: fast enough to chase every ball, big enough to block and hit.
Tomlinson cannot help but think that Lloyd would have fit right in on the old TV show.
"She'd have killed it," he said with a television-ready smile. "Killed it."