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UNC Women’s Soccer: Claudia Dickey, loneliness, and the NCAA championship

On one woman’s poise from the loneliest position in sports.

NCAA Womens Soccer: Division I-College Cup Championship-North Carolina vs Stanford John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve never been to Norway. I know that’s an odd way to start an article ostensibly about collegiate soccer, but bear with me. I’ve never been to Norway, which means I’ve never visited Trolltunga, a landmark that has long fascinated me. This spit of land, soaring above sea level and coming to a point amidst an enormous quantity of nothing, is famous among thrill-seekers and landscape photographers alike. Whenever I find myself reminded of its existence, if I stumble across a photo of it online or am just reminded by some other far-off and high place, I often wonder how it would be to stand at what has to feel like the edge of the world.

Imagining myself surrounded by nothing but sky in nearly every direction, standing mere feet away from a precipitous drop—setting aside the obvious anxiety in the pit of my stomach, the overwhelming sense I get from these musings is loneliness. The remote spit of land, overlooking sheer rock faces and water somewhere below, makes me think of being profoundly alone. There are few more solitary and forbiddingly beautiful places on the planet, and to look at it has always given me that far-off pang of solitude. It’s a nearly-indescribable feeling, which may make this a pointless thought exercise, but this is all to say that I got that same feeling watching the end of the Women’s College Cup.

I can imagine myself standing on a rock, albeit a very high and solitary rock. I’ve stood on rocks once or twice before, so it’s not much of a leap for me to imagine myself standing on that particular rock in Norway. What I cannot imagine, however, is standing in goal as the national title game goes to penalty kicks.

It has got to be one of the loneliest places in all of sports. A pitcher, in the bottom of the ninth and with runners in scoring position, has a team behind them to at least make a play on the ball should the batter make contact. A goalkeeper has nothing behind them but nylon and disappointment. A golfer, one stroke out of the lead, only has him or herself to think about when attempting a long birdie putt on the 18th. A goalkeeper has an entire team, arms locked and looking on, depending on them and hoping against hope that they guess correctly.

To the untrained eye, the split-second decision that becomes action even faster looks like nothing more than a guess. My eyes would fall into that category. I know, in principle, that a whole lot of preparation and the ability to read the small tells in a penalty kickers’ approach can inform the guess, but to me it’s still incredible when a goalkeeper saves a penalty kick. The goal has never looked bigger than it does when there is one person standing in the middle of it, staring out at a shooter for whom the deck is stacked almost insurmountably. To make a save on any penalty kick is to perform a minor miracle. To do it on national television, with a national championship on the line, in a game and season-ending penalty shootout is like standing on Trolltunga with roller skates on.

Claudia Dickey played an incredible match on Sunday night. She, along with the Tar Heel defense, held the Stanford Cardinal’s high-powered offense scoreless through regulation and two overtime periods, making sure the Cardinal went unrewarded for their 21 shots in match play. After the additional time had expired, when the game was to be decided by penalty kicks, there was no obvious change in demeanor from the sophomore keeper. She was standing on the edge of the loneliest peak in sports, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell by looking at her. After the Tar Heels’ first penalty kick was blocked by Stanford goalkeeper Katie Meyer, Dickey stayed tough, eventually making a save of her own (not to mention adding a goal for good measure) to tie it back up for North Carolina and set up a sudden-death penalty shootout.

The match didn’t end the way you, nor I, nor Dickey and the Heels were hoping. For the second straight year, North Carolina fell just short of a national title. That, too, must be a very lonely feeling, something the team will doubtlessly deal with together. For my part, however, I’m very proud of how this team represented North Carolina, and I won’t soon forget the way Dickey stood her ground, even when surrounded by all that lonesome nothing.