LONDON — The baddest, wildest, dont-give-a-flip-est woman in American team sports is taking a victory lap in front of more fans than could fit in all but one stadium back home. Hope Solo is laughing. She is smiling. She is waving at bunches of friends and thousands of strangers in a country thats always loved her sport just not her gender playing it.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
This is her moment. She wraps herself in an American flag. She is the star. She is the face. She is the mouth. And in a 2-1 win over Japan in the Olympic womens soccer final Thursday at Wembley Stadium, she is the reason the Team USA dynasty is back with another gold medal.
That was her, at the front of the line with a gold medal around her neck and flowers in her hands, singing the national anthem as loud as her lungs could sing it.
Honestly, she says, its the first time in my athletic career that I felt like it was a true team.
Solos words there will be taken and repeated a million times now, connected to the Big Controversy she started by lashing out at former teammate and current broadcaster Brandi Chastain for relatively tame criticism of Team USA. Those words are also quintessential Hope, which is exactly how teammate Megan Rapinoe described the game.
She is immature or defending a teammate, oversensitive or proud, lacking focus or overflowing with passion. Maybe she just wants to help move her upcoming book off the shelves.
Either way, the womens soccer portion of these Olympics became Solos. She was already the most recognizable athlete on her countrys most recognizable womens team, the one in the most commercials, the most ads, the most web clicks.
Whatever, it was entirely unnecessary and entirely her.
I dont care how people perceive me, she says. I am who I am. Im here to win.
Those words are also quintessential Hope, and if she didnt play like this in the gold medal game, the American sports landscape would perceive her differently. But we love a winner, especially a lively one, especially one who plays out of her mind on the big stage, and especially one who does it for Team USA.
The gold medal thats four out of five for America, a better stretch than any country has had in the mens World Cup doesnt make up for losing to Japan in penalty kicks in last years World Cup. But it does push Team USA back on top of the womens soccer mountain, and it did make for a terrific night for Solo to be at her swagger-est best.
Team USA needed everyone, of course. Solo is talking about more than just what happens during 90 minutes when she drops that true team line, of course, but it fits in that context as well.
Japan is skilled, and last years World Cup win does not stand as a fluke. Carli Lloyd scored both goals the first on a terrific pass by Alex Morgan, the second she created largely on her own. A couple of balls got by Solo. Once, Christie Rampone made a stop.
But if the soccer adage Solo likes to repeat keepers dont win games, they save them is true then she saved the Americans. In the 18th minute, it was a jumping, fingertip save with her left hand on a header by Yuki Ogimi. In the 83rd minute, it was a gold-saving stop after Rampone lost it to Mana Iwabuchi and Solo dived what seemed to be 100 feet to her left to knock it away.
Lucky? Over and over, Solos teammates call her the best keeper in the world, a title thats repeated in many international soccer circles.
The truth is, Solo wanted this. She wanted the gold medal to come down to her moment, her skills, her reaction. This tournament didnt give her that in the first five games. The Americans gave up three goals in the miraculous semifinal win over Canada, and Solo couldve made her mark then, but she also accurately alluded to some shoddy defense in front of her.
So she wanted this. The big stage, the largest crowd ever to watch an Olympic womens soccer game in the sports most famous stadium. She got her chance with cameras flashing 360 degrees around her, marriage proposals written on paperboard a moment all to herself.
If she missed it, who knows? Maybe the game goes to penalty kicks and Japan wins again. But she didnt miss it. She backed up her talk, backed up the talk from others, rose to the moment that youd expect from the baddest, wildest, dont-give-a-flip-est woman in American team sports. The truth is, she wanted this. Desperately.
I was hoping it would come, and it finally did, she says. I tend to play well under pressure. But a lot of great players do.
Quintessential Hope, indeed.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.