It may sound like a peculiar statement from the best goalkeeper in the world, but Hope Solo never wanted to play the position that led her to stardom. She featured primarily as a forward during a glittering high school career. She preferred the physical demands required from field players and wanted to stay as mobile as possible.
External circumstances forced her into a fateful choice as she prepared for college. She grappled with a trio of enticing options - accept a basketball scholarship, continue her career as a field player or switch her focus to goalkeeping - and ultimately settled on a career between the sticks at the University of Washington. It proved a difficult transition for her at first.
"My first love was soccer, but my first love was not being a goalkeeper," Solo said after addressing campers at her alma mater on behalf of Gatorade's Beat the Heat program on Wednesday. "I even had shame in raising my hand when someone said, who is the goalkeeper on your team? It came with a stigma that it was the person who was out of shape, the one who was overweight, the one who wasn't good with the ball at her feet. It took a long time for me to truly learn the intricacies of goalkeeping, find my respect for the position and try to make it my position."
From the outset, Solo decided that she did not want to adhere to the traditional model. She committed to maintaining her fitness levels. She planned to deploy skills she cultivated as a field player (she scored 109 goals during her high school career in Richland, Wash., including 39 in her senior season) to provide more cover for her defense. As she honed her positioning and her technique to perform her primary duties and utilize her ideal stature for the role, she plotted to supply another, different element behind the back four with her ability to help her teammates in possession.
"I believe it was because I was a field player first," Solo said. "I didn't just want to sit in the goal in front of my friends and make a save on the line. I wanted to be a part of the play, a part of the attack. And I was good with the ball at my feet. If a defender got into trouble, then the defender could lay the ball off to me and I could calmly and confidently take a touch with pressure and distribute the ball accurately."
Those qualities developed as Solo excelled at Washington (four All-Pac 10 first-team berths, a Hermann Trophy nomination and the unquestioned status as one of the top goalkeepers in college history) and found her footing at the professional level. It took a bit longer than expected for Solo to establish herself - she bided her time as a reserve option for the U.S. for a while and suffered through a halting, injury-marred rookie season with former WUSA side Philadelphia in 2003 - and place herself onto the path toward the lofty perch she holds today.
Solo's decision to move overseas after the dissolution of WUSA accelerated her growth. She received regular match practice at a good standard and thrived when placed under the duress of playing in Sweden and France. It polished the rough edges of her game and served as one of the necessary underpinnings for her eventual progression to the number one shirt with the U.S. in 2005 and 2006. Solo now calls the leap one of the wisest decisions she ever made for her career.
"I grew as a person, I grew in my own confidence going overseas," Solo said. "My maturity level in all areas increased. I no longer became nervous when I played with the U.S. team. I no longer cared whether a coach liked me or not because I knew that I was playing my style of soccer. If my time came, it came. If it didn't, then I was fine with playing overseas and getting paid well overseas and really enjoying the game."
The collection of medals and trophies compiled over the past few years offers a reminder that her time arrived after her European finishing school. Her rise to the top - now a familiar story - carried the typical ups and downs of performing at the pinnacle of the sport and drew ample, well-chronicled scrutiny, but it also unfolded on her terms. It still does, even in her early 30's.
A series of injuries over the past few years - major shoulder surgery in 2010, a broken wrist this year - make it a bit harder now to meet her own high standards, but Solo embraces the challenge that awaits her. There are World Cups and Olympics still on the horizon. And the best goalkeeper in the world plans to pursue those objectives ardently as she relishes a role it took just a little bit of time to embrace and only a tad bit longer to alter forever.
"Now I can feel like I'm one of the first to change the role of female goalkeeping," Solo said. "And I'm proud of that."