By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Hope Solo always felt appreciated during her time as a University of Washington student-athlete.
Just never like this.
Seventy-five minutes before kickoff of a Thursday night game between the UW women’s soccer team and Oregon, fans were lined up all the way from one corner of the school’s soccer complex to the other, two and three people deep, about 250 of them in all. All waiting for Solo, the one-time Husky goalkeeper, to sign books and soccer balls.
Two adolescent girls met her, then walked away giggling, sharing a high-five for good measure. A teen-age girl did a celebratory dance, and her father joked about being surprised she didn’t pass out. Three males who look like college students got their photo with Solo; one of them is blushing when he walks away, while another points to his friend’s camera and says: “Send that (photo) to me — right now.”
Since leaving UW as an accomplished goalkeeper who rarely got recognized on campus, Solo has become quite a celebrity — and not just on the campus she used to roam. Her gold medals as a member of the U.S. national team, her season on “Dancing With the Stars” and her controversial comments about a national-team coach and former-player-turned-commentator Brandi Chastain have made the former UW athlete as popular as any sports celebrity of this era.
Her name, as they say in the Twitter world, is constantly trending. At least one website named Solo as one of the 30 most Googled female athletes of the past year.
“Obviously, my brand has kind of crossed over a little bit into the mainstream,” Solo said Thursday night, before the autograph session and a pre-game speech to the current Huskies that preceded the UW-Oregon soccer match. “When you do a show like ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ you can get a different audience. So I’m probably recognized now more off the field than on the field.”
That was evident Thursday night, when fans kept streaming into the soccer complex for more than an hour just to get a look at the cross-cultural star and the gold medal she brought along. But even in her days as an under-the-radar goalkeeper for the Huskies, Solo signed a few autographs for young fans outside the UW soccer complex.
“Now things are much different,” she said. “Now people want my autograph because I have won a gold medal, because I’m one of the best at what I do. It’s not because they want to be a Husky when they turn 18.”
Solo, who has attended multiple UW soccer matches over the years, said that she can “still fly under the radar pretty good” when on campus. But that doesn’t always pertain to her life in public. She’s recognized all the time _ whether it’s for her Olympic heroics or her time as a part-time television dancer.
“I take offense to people coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, you’re that girl from ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ when I’ve committed my life to the game of soccer and committed everything I could to being the best soccer player I could,” she said. “So I take offense to that. To me, it’s still crazy when people flock up to me and think I’m a reality-television star instead of a soccer player.”
Solo doesn’t necessarily shy away from the spotlight, as evidenced by her controversial Twitter posts and hold-nothing-back interviews. She’s currently promoting a book, her autobiography “Solo,” and last year shed her clothes to appear on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue.”
Yet Solo said early Thursday evening, after doing a live Twitter-feed interview in the UW coaching offices, that seeking celebrity is not a part of her makeup.
“You’d be surprised,” she said while signing a large stack of books on a table before heading out to the soccer field to pen some more autographs. “Actually, I’m a very shy person. Playing on the soccer field is where I’m comfortable. Anyone who knows me just a little bit knows that I’m introverted.”
Now 31 years old and living in Kirkland, Solo often heads across the water to visit her alma mater and chat with UW soccer coaches Lesle Gallimore and Amy Griffin.
“Lesle and Amy have been pivotal in my life,” she said, “with my success, both on and off the field, and my mentality with how I deal with life challenges. I think the most important thing I got out of coming to the University of Washington was having them in my life. My life could have gone any number of directions had I not had good people surrounding me.”
When asked what kind of a person she was when she arrived from the Tri-Cities to the UW campus in 1999, Solo laughed and said: “Young and stupid. Naïve. But that’s what college is about: learning what I did, day-to-day. But I also had huge dreams, and there was a lot of pressure on me to be a role model quicker than I wanted to.”
Like it or not, the former UW goalkeeper who once walked around campus in anonymity is a role model for many now.
But she hasn’t forgotten the university where it all started.
“It will always be a second home _ especially while Lesle and Amy are here, for sure,” she said. “But even beyond that. This is probably where I grew up the most. It was the jump-start for my career. You always want to play college soccer, but beyond that I wanted to play in the Olympics, to play for my country. I truly believe that if I didn’t come to school here, I wouldn’t have accomplished those goals.
“So when I do come back, it reminds me of that launch pad of fulfilling all of my childhood dreams. It started here.”