Hope Solo's absolute truth

Prim Siripipat talks with Olympic gold medalist Hope Solo about her book, "Solo: A Memoir of Hope."

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Within the first few paragraphs of her new memoir, Hope Solo pulls the rug out from under the scenes of small-town tranquility she initially presents to describe her childhood home in Richland, Wash. The imagery of the family sheepdog, backyard jungle gym and Easter-egg hunts with which her story begins is wiped away and replaced with a sense of foreboding.

"But as with so much of my life, the truth is a little more complicated," Solo writes.

It would be easier to understand one of the defining athletes of a generation if she didn't so often seem to believe otherwise.

Much about Solo suggests that truth is indeed complicated and open to interpretation. Depending on your point of view, she is either the recidivist source or misunderstood target of controversy. To some, she is an uncorrupted model of strength who overcame daunting obstacles to achieve her dream. To others, she's a temperamental, selfish star who time and again digs sizable holes from which she has to extricate herself.

What is so jarring about that line early in the book is how quickly it, too, proves to be an illusion. There is often little that is complicated about the truth as Solo reveals it. Truth becomes an absolute, a dividing line between right and wrong in conflicts for which any middle ground is nonexistent. We are left to pick from one of those two-dimensional sides in a three-dimensional story.

It's why Solo is one of the best women's soccer players -- let alone goalkeepers -- in the world: blessed with talent, yes, but also driven to excel. It's also why she will remain a contentious figure, both beloved and bemoaned.

For Solo, what she sees is what you get.

"Solo: A Memoir of Hope" is a wide-ranging, unreservedly compelling account of a far from ordinary life. As might be expected, it delves into considerable detail regarding the incidents and relationships that -- in addition to the skills that set her apart as the best goalkeeper in women's soccer -- provided the kind of name recognition needed to sell a memoir at 31 years old. Considerable space is devoted to the 2007 World Cup, in which she was famously benched in a failed strategic gambit by United States coach Greg Ryan and ostracized by teammates for subsequent critical comments, as well as her return and redemption in winning a gold medal as the starting goalkeeper in the Olympics the following year under new coach Pia Sundhage. She relates details of her contentious partnership with Maksim Chmerkovskiy on "Dancing with the Stars," including allegations that the professional dancer hit her. And in an epilogue, she writes about the controversy surrounding her tweets critical of NBC analyst and former national team star Brandi Chastain during the recent Olympics.

But beyond those hot spots, and the first third of the book, which deals with a period of time before any of them, Solo reveals her life as a sustained series of conflicts. Conflict appears time and again, and everyone from older brother Marcus to her high school athletic director to University of North Carolina soccer coach Anson Dorrance to Abby Wambach becomes a foil. Some, like Marcus and Wambach, are redeemed in whole or part. Many are not.

"I think people who don't have conflict in their lives are just trying to please people and not really living life to the fullest," Solo said in an interview as part of the promotional tour for the book. "You know, you're not going to be liked by everybody when you speak the truth. I don't speak the truth to put people down; I don't speak the truth to show disrespect.

"But I think that's what we should do in life is just speak the truth."

The recent controversy surrounding Solo's Olympic tweets may rate among the more innocuous conflicts of her career, ultimately a footnote early in what proved to be another gold-medal triumph, complete with a command performance from the goalkeeper in the final match against Japan. But the incident, in which Solo called into question Chastain's standing as a credible analyst, illustrated just how little gray area there is in the keeper's world view. In this case, Chastain's criticism of defender Rachel Buehler -- criticism described by many as mild at its harshest -- was part of a longer-running conflict between the generation of players who gained fame in winning the 1999 World Cup and the current generation who similarly captured the nation's sporting attention in falling just short in last year's World Cup and winning Olympic gold in dramatic fashion this year.

"Honestly, I just don't think she has a soccer mind," Solo said of Chastain. "You know, you have to submerse yourself in the current team, and show up to the trainings and listen to the coaching style, watch game footage. Perhaps she does. I know she's never around our team, so she doesn't know what we're working toward, she doesn't know our style of play, she doesn't show up to trainings and know what we're asking of a player like Rachel Buehler. So you have to get to know what the team's intentions are to really broadcast it on air in the true fashion.

"But even without showing up -- because I do know a lot of commentators don't show up to trainings and all that -- but I just don't think she has a soccer mind, a sophisticated soccer mind."

Truth by this definition becomes teammates "following" veterans Kristine Lilly and Wambach, as Solo writes, in treating her as a "pariah" in a meeting the day after the 2007 World Cup semifinal, and comments that she insists were directed at Ryan but which many interpreted as a slight to veteran Briana Scurry (Solo makes note of similar comments by Scurry following the 2000 Olympic final over which no controversy arose). There is no allowance for the possibility that any of those silent teammates agreed of their own volition with the veterans. Truth becomes game officials conspiring to give a rival WPS team a critical win, no room left for even the possibility of incompetence if calls were missed.

Conflict is thus almost always presented as a stark contrast, making it all but impossible to do anything but side entirely with or against her. That source of motivation even she concedes.

"I am pushed by my critics," Solo said. "I don't want to say I want to prove them wrong, but it pushes me on the field to play with a chip on my shoulder, and I play best when I have a chip on my shoulder. And I think that's why I've been so successful in my soccer career because I've always had a chip on my shoulder because of all the things that I've been through in the younger days."

It seems unlikely that Solo would want sympathy, but she is in so many ways an admirable character. Conflict found her at an early age and challenged her in ways few will experience. To find out her father's identity was a fiction, to see him homeless in the same city in which she attended college and to see his life further ruined in connection to a murder for which he was later exonerated -- these are just a few of the ways in which Solo experienced life, not as a character-building exercise or a test but as a harsh existence unto itself. That conflict is powerful and complicated and need not be minimized with the kind of roll-credits happy ending she writes that she doesn't believe in.

Her willingness to reveal that kind of conflict, without clear resolution and in all its messiness, makes it possible to get a sense of a person.

Yet there are also more than 150 references to "Greg" in the book, all identifying the former national team coach who at one point is described as "soulless, heartless and illogical" in a journal entry Solo reprints. The events in and around 2007 were major points in her life and threatened to derail her career, and background on the relationship with Ryan is important. But there is still a great deal of space devoted to that and other conflicts rarely described in anything other than terms of right and wrong, if not outright good and evil. Ryan is entirely two-dimensional: an out-of-his-depth, hypocritical, spiteful pushover beholden to veterans and entirely lacking in compassion or courage. Rarely is a person so completely demolished personally and professionally in text. It's a great deal of space spent making truth something less than complicated.

"I had no point to get across about Greg Ryan," Solo countered when asked what she wanted people to take away from the book about her former coach. "Again, it's a truthful account of my life story, so it's not about -- I'm not trying to go around putting people down who caused harm in my life. People want to talk about Greg Ryan, people want to talk about Max and Brandi, but what about my dad? What about my mom? What about my family? It's not a story about Greg Ryan; it's a story about my life."

Solo said she was approached some years ago, well before the events of the 2007 World Cup or any of the other public controversies, to write a book about her life story. She decided at the time that she wasn't ready to share so much. In her words, she wasn't sure she "understood everything my life had brought me."

There's no doubt finding that certainty coincided with her rise as the world's best goalkeeper. What Solo represents remains rather more complicated.

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