Sparked by their incredible comeback win over Brazil in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, Hope Solo and the U.S. Women's soccer team drew attention to an event that, until then, had gone relatively unnoticed. While the Americans came up short in their quest for gold, the squad galvanized the nation and turned what could have been considered a massive failure into a huge success.
Perhaps even more so than her stud teammates Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, Solo has been the linchpin of that success. Her natural charisma and feisty competitiveness struck a chord with fans of all ages. Her popularity remains whether her team wins or loses, and, maybe for the first time in the history of the sport, it extends beyond a predominantly female audience.
Solo is well aware of the social impact her team has had, and just how crucial it is to continue spreading the game across age groups.
"I think it's amazing what happened at the World Cup," Solo told The Huffington Post, "because you could see the nation truly got behind us -- kids, grandfathers and everyone else in between."
Solo is hoping that her teammates can expand the awareness and appreciation of the game, much as her colleagues on the men's side have done. After a riveting 2010 Men's World Cup which saw the U.S. bow out in the Knockout Stage, striker Landon Donovan and company thrived on the media's love and made soccer more relevant here than ever before.
"As much as we want to inspire the youth of America, you can't just rely on the youth to make a league work," Solo said, referring to efforts to create a sustainable women's league in the U.S.
"I've always wanted to reach the middle-aged demographics, the older generation, because those are the true sports fans. In a pretty honest way, those are also the ones who have the money to spend buying tickets."
As hard as she has worked on the field, the 29-year-old goalkeeper (she turns 30 tomorrow) fully understands the challenges off the pitch as well. When the team returned to the States after a grueling few weeks in Germany, they were tired and in desperate need of rest. But unlike other national teams, women's soccer, doesn’t have a torrent of media attention to rely on 24-7, so they needed to make the most of their moment.
"We have to capitalize on the media," Solo said. "Coming home, we were all exhausted, we all wanted to feel sorry for ourselves for not winning the World Cup, but at the same time, the nation wanted to welcome us home. We put on our faces for the fans and we did the media tour -- "Good Morning America," "David Letterman." I flew to LA when most people went home, and I did the media circuit there. I think that's our responsibility; I need to keep the awareness of the game out there, but I also need to thank our fans."
Giving her time and energy off the pitch is nothing new for Solo. She said she has donated her time to soccer clinics and is "passionate" about helping inner-city kids.
"I was also in South Africa for the Men's World Cup," she said. "I took a week off, and I went down there on my own dime, and I worked with kids that had been affected by AIDS, hoping to give them some type of hope. It changed my outlook on life and on the sport. I do what I can when I can, and a lot of it isn't always noticed, and that's kind of the way I like it."
Like it or not, Solo is starting to be noticed now.
After the final Japanese penalty kick went though and the Americans' fate was sealed, the audience couldn’t help but notice Solo's absence.
The American women gathered together, heartbroken, clearly still in shock over what had just happened. Solo however, was nowhere to be found in the scrum of white jerseys. Before soaking in the loss with her teammates, she first ran over to her family, something simply not seen often in sports.
"My family knew more than anybody that I had a lifelong dream to win a World Cup," she explained.
"They made their way all the way to Germany with kids and little money to do everything they could to support me. I'm almost 30, and they've made major sacrifices," she said with emotion.
"I wanted to win it for my teammates and my country, but a lot of it was all the sacrifices that my family made. .... There was nothing that needed to be said, I just wanted to thank them in my way. I think even though we didn’t win, there was something bigger -- the ability so seep through the heartache and be grateful."
Solo has plenty to be grateful about away from the game as well. She, along with teammates Wambach and Morgan, recently signed to lead the “Let’s Run Together” Charitable Relay at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in October.
"The program is focused on teamwork," she said. "It's people coming together for a common cause. I think my whole life has represented people coming together for common goals and dreams."
"Our team really inspired Bank of America," Solo said. "We didn't win it, but we showed so much fight. We showed an American fighting spirit."
Solo personifies that fighting spirit. Brutally honest and highly motivated, she refuses to let the disappointing finish against Japan get in her way. Although she's suffered many injuries -- she says she took "lots of shots to get [her] through the tournament" and stay on the field -- Solo isn't done yet.
Will she play in the next World Cup?
"Yeah, I'm going for another one," she says eagerly.
At this point, is anybody surprised?
Plus, check out my brand new HuffPost sports blog, The Schultz Report, for a fresh and daily outlook on all things sports.