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Posted: Thursday July 17, 2008 10:25AM; Updated: Thursday July 17, 2008 2:12PM
Grant Wahl Grant Wahl >

Hard Return

Story Highlights
  • Hope Solo's father and best friend died just months before the 2007 World Cup
  • After the Cup, she was treated like an outcast after her outburst
  • Now she is back on the U.S. team and bound for Beijing
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U.S. keeper Hope Solo is still trying to repair her reputation after her controversial comments at the '07 Women's World Cup.
U.S. keeper Hope Solo is still trying to repair her reputation after her controversial comments at the '07 Women's World Cup.
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"If you truly expect to realize your dreams, abandon the need for blanket approval. If conforming to everyone's expectations is the number one goal, you have sacrificed your uniqueness, and therefore your excellence."
-- Hope Solo's MySpace page

Only the bathtub brought relief. In the days after the 2007 Women's World Cup, amid the grief and the anger and the despair, Hope Solo sought refuge in the one place that eased the pain afflicting her entire body. She repaired to a corner of her home in Kirkland, Wash., drew the hottest bath possible, lowered herself into the water and dozed off, stirring only to crawl out and lie flat on the bathroom floor when the temperature became too much. The routine would go on for hours: tub, floor, tub, floor, tub, floor.

"I couldn't sleep in my bed because my body just ached, so I'd start the bathtub," she says. "If that's what depression is, I think I hit it. I was a wreck."

Solo's world was collapsing. Her father, Jeffrey, had died of a heart attack in June, three months before the World Cup in China. Her best friend, Elizabeth Duncan, had been struck by a car and killed while jogging in Seattle in April. Now Solo's career was hanging in the balance. In late September, on the eve of the Cup semifinal against Brazil, U.S. coach Greg Ryan had made the stunning decision to bench her in favor of veteran Briana Scurry, despite Solo's three straight World Cup shutouts. After the U.S.'s 4-0 loss, Solo erupted.

"It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that," she told a Canadian reporter, adding that it was no longer 2004 -- a jab, many thought, at Scurry, the keeper on the U.S. team that won the Olympic gold medal in Athens. Then came the kicker: "There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves."

Dissatisfied with her qualified apologies, Ryan and Solo's teammates banished her from the third-place game against Norway, from attending the medal ceremony, from eating at team meals, from the team's flight home. Solo returned to Seattle and faced a decision. With the Olympics less than a year away, should the U.S.'s top goalie give up soccer at age 26? Leave America for a club team in Europe? Or rejoin her still-angry U.S. teammates in St. Louis for a three-game tour just two weeks after the World Cup, as her contract called for.

For two weeks she retreated to the bathtub. She lost 10 pounds. She stopped answering phone calls and e-mails from friends. "I wanted to give up," Solo says. "Why show up somewhere where 20-plus people hate you? But I was going to be there to prove to everybody that you can't determine somebody's career by whether you like them or not."

Eight months later Solo is back on the team and expected to start in goal at the Olympics for the U.S., which hasn't lost a game since the World Cup. For the team and its new coach, Pia Sundhage of Sweden, the challenge will be twofold: one, to win the gold medal playing the kind of creative, possession-based soccer that was absent in Ryan's kick-and-run approach; and two, to disprove the long-held belief that female athletes need personal bonds with their teammates to succeed.

"Things are changing," says veteran forward Abby Wambach. "The younger players have a little bit of that emotional attachment to each other, but less so than in the past. You don't have to like each other, but once you cross that line, if you can like each other for at least 90 minutes, then I think you can be successful."

No episode in U.S. women's soccer history has convulsed the team more than the Solo saga, which has strained friendships and sparked fundamental questions about the nature of women's sports. Did Solo's outburst violate a team-first ethos that was a cornerstone of the U.S. women's appeal and success, or was that mentality naive in the first place? Did her punishment fit the crime? And would it even have been imposed on a men's team?

"In England guys get in fights and arguments all the time, and usually within an hour or by the next day everything's fine," says former U.S. men's keeper Kasey Keller, who has played 17 seasons in Europe. "But to be completely ostracized? I've never heard of anything like that."

Yet women are different, argues U.S. defender Cat Whitehill, whose coach at North Carolina, Anson Dorrance, did more than anyone else to shape the emotional-bond culture of the U.S. team as its coach from 1986 to '94. When a personal problem arises on a men's team, Whitehill notes, "they can punch somebody in the face and it's done with. For girls, we don't punch in the face. We hold it in, and when it comes out, it's fire, which is really awful. But as women we all understand that people are human, and I think everybody has truly forgiven Hope. We can still have a bond with her."

Perhaps. But the healing process hasn't been easy. Solo issued a formal public apology to Scurry and Ryan when she rejoined the team in St. Louis last October. But behind closed doors things only got worse. At a team meeting that Solo says had been billed as a first step forward, players took turns telling her how upset she'd made them.

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