"It Takes a Lot to Rattle Me"

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

She lost her dad, got benched, had surgery, and tested positive for a banned substance. How Hope Solo survived it all--and put U.S. women's soccer in position to bring home gold again.

Hope Solo couldn't have slept more than an hour or two last night, so maybe it's that. Or maybe it's the hunger: the only food she's eaten since boarding a red-eye from Seattle--the one with a three-hour layover in Memphis--was a forkful of Cobb salad. Then again, it could be the mimosas. Plural. One at her publicist's hotel right after landing in Tampa this morning and then another here at the Crowne Plaza just a few minutes ago.

Maybe it's all of that. Maybe it's none of that. Either way, Solo--5 feet 9, 150 pounds, with bright blue eyes and the leonine bone structure of a bulked-up Jennifer Carpenter--is getting pretty intense.

Today was supposed to be her day off. One of the last, actually, before the 2012 London Olympics. In 72 hours Solo, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and the rest of the U.S. women's soccer team will embark for England, where the vast swirling vortex of the Games awaits them: the matches, the media, the flashbulbs, the fans. With the latest American league in shambles--Women's Professional Soccer folded in May--the squad will be under a lot of pressure to defend its 2008 gold medal and avenge last summer's narrow World Cup loss, relying on its strength, grit, and experience to counter Japan's technical skill and the graceful, creative play of Brazil and France.

And yet, for some reason, the Face of Women's Soccer in America--a.k.a. the Best Female Goalkeeper in the World--is not spending her last Saturday slumped on the sofa, or steaming at the spa, or scarfing a final plate of pad thai. Instead she's flown 2,525 miles to Florida to film a workout-DVD ad and have her picture taken by a newsmagazine.

For Solo, who will turn 31 later this month, it's all part of being a female athlete circa 2012. "An NFL player never has to do any endorsements, and he's fine," says Solo. (She hawks Gatorade, Bank of America, and Simple skin care, among other things; an autobiography is due out in August.) "But it doesn't work that way for us. My soccer salary would only make me an average living. So we can't just market to little girls constantly. We need to start selling tickets to the masses. To middle-aged men. To all walks of life. At the end of the day, these stupid photo shoots are about bringing more recognition to the game, getting bigger contracts, and putting ourselves on the same level as the men."

And so, in the Crowne Plaza's Treasure Island Ballroom, Solo poses. The goal is to capture her leaping and kicking the ball at the same time, but with her eyes fixed on the lens and her face angled just so and her various limbs arrayed into some sort of elegant airborne geometry. This, it turns out, is nearly impossible. After an hour or so, she throws down her water bottle and starts dribbling the soccer ball between her legs. "Someone coach me," she shouts. No response. "OK," she continues, to herself this time. "I'm guess I'm just going to coach myself through this." On the next pass, she rears back, bounds forward, and boots the ball into one of the photographer's lamps. The bulb shatters, and the contraption collapses.

Everyone laughs. Nervously. Assistants scramble. "I'm totally speechless right now," Solo says, covering her mouth. "This isn't expensive equipment or anything, right?"

Maybe it wasn't the sleep, or the hunger, or the mimosas. Maybe it's just that Hope Solo can't help it. Can't help getting into tricky situations. Can't help pushing herself through them. And can't help making a bit of a mess along the way.

The athletes we really root for--the ones we dream about and obsess over and set our DVRs to--tend to belong to one of two sporting breeds. The first is the Superhuman: the flawless freak who earns our admiration by doing things no other Homo sapiens can do. …