Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
In the last 20 months Hope Solo, goalkeeper for the U.S. women's national soccer team, suffered the loss of her best friend, who was hit by a car while running, and her father, who suffered a fatal heart attack. She was replaced as America's goalkeeper on the eve of a World Cup semifinal match with Brazil and then was banished from the team for criticizing that decision. When allowed to return to the squad later under a new coach, she was treated as an outcast; most teammates wouldn't sit with her at meals.
The worst spell of Solo's life, however, turned positive this past summer. Back between the pipes for the national team, she made save after save in a stirring 1-0 victory over Brazil that gave the Americans the Olympic gold medal. Her stop of a point-blank Marta shot in the 72nd minute was the play of the tournament, and it was the kind of save that previous U.S. coach Greg Ryan questioned she could make when he pulled her from the lineup at the World Cup.
"It's like a storybook ending," Solo said after the Olympics. "It's something you see in Hollywood or in fairy tales. My life doesn't play out like that all the time."
Happy endings alone don't merit the honor of Sportsperson of the Year. But behind Solo's story of redemption is a more layered one about women's sports in general. As my colleague Grant Wahlwrote before the Olympics, the Solo affair raised many questions: "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?"
The answers Solo provided with her star turn in Beijing have moved the women's game to a better place. No longer will the national team's success be anchored to the notion of camaraderie, as if friendship matters more than foot skills. After the 1999 World Cup and throughout the Golden Girls era of Mia, Brandi and Julie, we were led to believe that, but it was a selective rendering. The U.S. won because they had the most talent and they played as a team. The "friends" angle was just that, an angle.
There is little doubt that Solo's punishment did not fit the crime; some teammates admit that now. But the way she handled her penance, by working on her game and not worrying about the love of her teammates, deserves respect. There are conflicting personalities in every locker room, and not getting along off the field shouldn't preclude a team from winning on it, especially not when the prize is a World Cup title or a gold medal.
Before the Olympics, Solo said: "We don't have to be friends to respect what somebody does on the field. I truly hope women's sports can get to that point."
The women's national soccer team has, and for that we can thank Hope Solo, a deserving Sportsperson of the Year.