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Hard Return

"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, ElizabethDuncan, 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 KaseyKeller, 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.

"It took every ounce of strength I had to just take it," Solo says. When she told the players that she hadn't planned her World Cup outburst, Whitehill -- her friend and World Cup roommate -- claimed it wasn't true. (Solo says Whitehill later apologized to her for "a miscommunication.")

Solo wasn't allowed to play or train with the team during the tour, and only midfielder Carli Lloyd broke ranks to sit next to her on the bench, visit her in her room and join her for meals. Before the meeting in St. Louis, Lloyd sat next to Solo and tapped her on the shoulder. Stay strong, Hope, she whispered. Lloyd was risking her own standing within the group, but, she says, "I just knew she was a great person and a phenomenal goalkeeper, and we need her on this team."

After a month-long team hiatus, Solo says, she wasn't sure she wanted to return to "what I saw as a sorority-style atmosphere" when the squad reconvened in December. But U.S. Soccer officials made it clear that Solo wouldn't face further discipline, and the team had a new coach in Sundhage.

"I had a choice," says Sundhage. "I could just ignore it and say I wasn't part of it. But I wanted to respect all the feelings that were flying around. The other thing I said [to the team] was, 'Do you want to win?' Yes. 'Then we need goalkeepers.'" It was a healthy dose of straight talk (translation: grow up and play) from a coach who set the tone in her first team meeting by singing Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin'.

"Fake it till you make it," one of Solo's friends told her. And so she did, smiling her way through the December camp and a tournament in China in January. "Then I'd go home and take a deep breath and feel like I could be myself without being judged," Solo says. "It got to the point where I really believed it. All of a sudden these smiles were genuine, and I think my heart changed. Time has really been the great healer. I know a lot of us have done some deep soul-searching. I'm genuinely enjoying my teammates again, which I never thought was possible."

Solo and Wambach both say they have become experts in agreeing to disagree, and time has softened their stances on the World Cup conflict, but only somewhat. Wambach stands by the decision to keep Solo off the squad for the third-place match ("It would have affected my ability to prepare for the game," she says), but she allows that it was "probably an overreaction" to tell Solo not to come to the stadium.

For her part, Solo maintains that her remarks after the loss to Brazil were heartfelt while acknowledging the damage they caused. "I believe everything I said," she insists. "Did I want to disrespect my teammates or Bri? No. Do I regret hurting them? There are days when I feel bad, and it's hard to keep my head up. I broke every code this team has been built on. I realize that."

In May, a few days before a game between the U.S. and Canada , Solo and Scurry finally sat down across from each other, for 2½ hours at a cafe in Washington, D.C. "It's been long overdue," Solo said the next morning, her eyes still red. "I'd been scared to have that conversation."

Solo says it was Scurry who'd done more than any other teammate to support her when her father died, who'd stared into her eyes as Solo rocked back and forth on her bed -- I can't do this! -- and said, over and over again, Yes you can, Hope. In the first game after Jeffrey Solo's death, Scurry had put his initials on her goalie gloves and dedicated the match to him.

Jeffrey had been Hope's first soccer coach, in Richland, Wash., and the source of her love for sports. But he was also a mystery. Hope knows he lived in New York City and Boston, fought in Vietnam and changed his surname twice over the years, leading her to believe he was part of the witness-protection program. As his marriage to Hope's mother, Judy, foundered, he absconded with eight-year-old Hope and her 11-year-old brother, Marcus, to Seattle for three weeks.

Then, after a decade of almost no contact, Hope and Jeffrey reconnected during her four years at the University of Washington. Though living in a tent in the woods, he attended all of Hope's home games, and she would take macaroni and cheese and join him for long talks.

"The World Cup was the only thing that kept me together after my dad passed away," says Solo, who scattered his ashes in front of her goal before games in China. "I played that World Cup for him and him alone."

Scurry's father, Ernest, had died two months before the 2004 Olympics, and she says she understood Solo's fragile emotional state during the World Cup. But as Scurry explained to Solo during their conversation in May, she couldn't fathom why Solo had put herself above the team, why she had disrespected the very players who'd made it possible for her to have a career playing soccer.

"We've always tried to be positive role models and show girls how to be good sports, gracious in victory and defeat," Scurry says. "Her comments were difficult to deal with, but one person's opinion doesn't define who I am or what I've done for this team."

It's a confusing time for Solo, to say nothing of her teammates. Yes, she thinks the U.S.'s traditional harmony-first culture needs to change. "We don't have to be friends to respect what somebody does on the field," she says. "I truly hope women's sports can get to that point. We like to say we are, but I don't think we're there yet."

But then Solo has conversations like the one with Scurry, and it's hard to imagine that women's teams won't always be different from men's. The two goalkeepers talked about forgiveness, about their fathers, about their respect for each other. Scurry said she'd always thought Solo was a good kid before the World Cup, and after the speechless Solo's eyes welled up, Scurry broke the silence: "Hope, I still think you're a good kid."

At the end they embraced.

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