BEIJING — Amid the team bedlam of an Olympic gold medal celebration Thursday night, the star of the game, goalkeeper Hope Solo, peeled away to an empty part of the Workers Stadium pitch. No one was within 50 yards of her.
A solo operation, as is her style.
Moments earlier, the former University of Washington star and Richland native had pulled a cell phone from her stash bag next to the net she defended so magnificently in the U.S.’ 1-0 overtime win over Brazil.
So confident was she of a victory that she brought the phone onto the field so a call could be made immediately to her younger brother, Marcus, back in Washington. As alone as anyone could be in a stadium that held more than 50,000 people, she yelled into the phone.
Cameron Spencer / Getty Images
Goalkeeper Hope Solo celebrates as she speaks on her cell phone after the U.S. women’s soccer team defeated Brazil in the gold medal match to defend their 2004 Olympic title. Former UW star and Richland native Solo stashed the phone in the bag she kept next to the goal and called her younger brother back in Washington as soon as the match ended to tell him about the team’s victory.
“I told him, ‘We just won a damn gold medal!’ ” she said, laughing. “And bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep!”
Then she walked back to the sideline, where the entire team was being interviewed as a group by NBC. She passed them by, smiling, and went into the locker room. A few minutes later, she came out for her TV interview. Alone.
Hope Solo is a different kind of female team athlete. She feels no obligation to apologize for breaking the paradigm of the Mia Hamm/Brandi Chastain-led teams of previous Olympics and World Cups that offered an endearing, highly marketable chick-bonding camaraderie.
Following her for the rest of her days will be an outburst after a World Cup loss 10 months ago to these same Brazilians, also in China. She made national headlines by breaking the code among team sports, particularly with women, when she publicly criticized her coach and teammates.
Labeled a pariah, she was ostracized. Now she’s a hero. The U.S. is women’s soccer champion for the third time in four Olympics. Even she is bewildered.
“It’s like a storybook ending you see in Hollywood or fairy tales, yet it’s really playing out,” she said. “It’s almost too perfect an ending. Nothing ever goes right with my family and my life. This is too perfect. I can’t really swallow it right now.”
It is an astonishing reversal. Her talent, not her headstrong words, was the decisive factor. The soccer federation had fired coach Greg Ryan and replaced him with Pia Sundhage, a Swede who previously coached China’s national team. A transformation was under way.
“I think the team changed for the better,” Solo said. “A lot of truth came out. It’s kind of a new role for female sports — we don’t have to be best friends to collaborate, put our hearts out on the field and win a gold medal.”
Solo joined her teammates for hugs, hand slaps, the medal ceremony and all the interviews. But she seemed apart, too — similar to the male sports culture of the big home run hitter, the star wide receiver, the dominant basketball center. An alpha leader is not gender specific, nor is he or she the warmest.
Solo is one tough woman. And she was the difference.
The Brazilians completely outplayed the Americans. They had possession 58 percent of the match and had 16 shots on goal compared with 11 for the U.S., though it seemed the gap was wider.
Diving, leaping, stretching on a damp, slippery field, Solo was the formidable answer to the Brazilians’ superior speed and quickness.
“Hope Solo is a great player,” said Brazil’s head coach, Jorge Barcellos, “especially on the crossing balls. She has a very strong sense of herself.”
Luca Bruno / AP
Hope Solo snags a high ball amid a crowd of players, including teammates Lori Chalupny, left, and Heather Mitts, during the women’s soccer gold medal match Thursday against Brazil.
Played to a scoreless tie in regulation in a stadium that had no game clock (perhaps because the civilization is 5,000 old, what’s a couple of hours?), the match turned in the 96th minute when Carli Lloyd’s booming left-footed shot from 18 yards out slipped past Brazilian goalie Barbara.
Even the scorer worked out poetically — Lloyd was the teammate who stuck closest to Solo the previous summer when she was shunned by others.
Solo, 27, also spent much of last year grieving the loss of her father, Jeffrey, who died of heart failure at 69, just a week before his daughter was to put on the U.S. uniform for the first time. He was her first soccer coach. She scattered some of his ashes on the field before every World Cup game.
It was Sundhage, the new coach, who helped with the repairs to attitude and soul.
“Pia is a great leader,” Solo said. “She brought in new players and created a new style and system. You have to do that in order to win a medal.
“She let me be myself. No one was looking over my shoulder. I feel like my spirit is free.”
Thrilling as the medal was around her neck, Solo said it was incidental to the transformation.
“The medal has nothing to do with me feeling better,” she said. “The healing had already taken place. The healing had to take place in my heart and mind before I could even get to the medal.”
Sundhage understood that special talents require a different touch. That is never easy in a sports culture, male or female, that traditionally values equality and fraternity (or sorority) above all.
It doesn’t fit the stereotype, but much can be accomplished behind a solo leader.