2016 Olympic Games, Rio - 1/2 final - Netherlands vs. Germany

Taking control of 22 top international players and one or two stressed out coaches is no easy task but having a successful career as a lawyer is a definite help. Soledad Iparraguirre began her international umpiring career at the Junior Pan American Championships back in 1997 in Santiago, Chile. Her first top level competition was the ninth Women’s Champions Trophy in the Netherlands in 2001, and the popular Argentinian has not looked back since. Now, just shy of 200 international matches, including two Olympic Finals, an Olympic bronze medal game, Soledad has just umpired her last Olympics, taking charge of a high tempo semi-final between Netherlands and Germany – and she is set to bow out of the international game.

Sheila Brown was Tournament Director at Rio 2016 for the women’s competition and the well-respected South African umpire, who is one of the most highly qualified hockey officials in the world, had this to say about her umpiring colleague: “I first met Sole in 2001 and from the start I knew she was going to be a special umpire. Sole was an umpire that placed women's umpiring on the map. 

“For me, she was a pioneer in women’s umpiring due to the high standard she set for herself. At every event I had the privilege to work with her she was always professional and she had a really special relationship with the players. She was able to quickly read the game and through her positive attitude on the field, developed a great respect both from the players and her co-umpires.

“Sole’s contribution to hockey has been vast and everyone will remember her for her commanding presence on the field. She always went the extra mile to assist everyone at all tournaments. She will be sadly missed.”

Sheila went on to utter the hope shared by the umpiring community around the world, but particularly in the Pan American region: “I hope that she will continue to contribute to our beautiful game through giving her knowledge to new umpires coming through the ranks either in Argentina or at FIH level events.”

We learn more about Soledad’s approach to umpiring via various interviews she has held over the course of her long umpiring career and through the courses she runs for upcoming umpires. The central message that has been the backbone of Soledad’s umpiring career and her umpiring coaching is the importance of talking to the players, keeping them informed of what is happening on the pitch and, if necessary, talking them through a decision. It is a trait that the younger international umpires are picking up, with both Kelly Hudson of New Zealand and Kylie Seymour of Australia quick to point out that their own game is based on developing great communication channels with the players.

Speaking to online hockey website Hockey Mobile prior to Rio 2016, Soledad says: “I like to chat with the players and have a good relationship with them. I do not want to run the game through cards and fear, but through dialogue, keeping a low profile and apologizing when I am wrong.”

This approach, which Soledad has maintained throughout her career, was ahead of its time, as she explains: “In an international tournament in 1998 [Women’s Three Nations] I was scored badly because I talked a lot with the players. Today, communication between umpires and players is the key to a good performance. If you can send a good message with thewhistle and words, I am not saying you are guaranteed to keep good control, but it certainly helps.”

She does not hammer the point home but it is clear that Soledad feels that the umpiring committees of the 1990s had some catching up to do.

The 2002 World Cup in Perth, Australia, was Soledad’s projection onto the biggest stage and two years later she umpired her first Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. It was at the 2006 World Cup in Madrid that Soledad received her golden whistle for 100 international matches and two years later she umpired the Final at the Beijing Olympics with Carolina de la Fuente. Now, 12 years and four Olympic Games later, the 44-year-old is hanging up her whistle, after gracing the stage at the 2016 Olympics. Her final game as a top international umpire was the crucial semi-final between Germany and the Netherlands, a fixture which had its own poignancy as it mirrors the first Olympic Final that Soledad umpired in Athens in 2004, alongside another South African legend, Marelize de Klerk.

Soledad finished the Olympic Games in Rio on 197 umpiring appearances – including the 2004 and 2008 Finals, and the 2012 bronze medal match – just three shy of the magical 200 number, but bowing out on the greatest hockey stage was always part of her plan.

Speaking on behalf of the Pan American Hockey Federation (PAHF), the organization’s President Alberto (Coco) Budeisky says: “Soledad is a reflection to aspiring PAHF umpires of the level they should be looking to attain. During her career as both an umpire and umpire’s coach, throughout Argentina and the entire Pan American continent, not only an incredibly high quality of umpiring, but also a readiness and willingness to share her knowledge and techniques of umpiring. Both on and off the field, she is an example to follow for sure.”

Before taking up the whistle, Soledad played hockey in Argentina but gave up in 1994 when she gave birth to her first child. She returned to hockey a year later as both a player and, increasingly, as an umpire with her club. Her rise to international level was rapid and just two years after first umpiring a club game, she found herself officiating at the Junior Pan American Games.

Falling pregnant with her second child meant that the umpiring career went on a brief hold, but it was always Soledad’s ambition to be fit and ready to umpire at the 2002 World Cup. Martin was born in June 2002, Soledad was umpiring the best teams in the world at the World Cup in December of that year.

Recognized as one of the best umpires in the world, Soledad has always been willing to pass on her expertise. She is Umpire Coordinator for the Argentina Hockey Confederation and can be found running regular training courses for the umpiring stars of the future across the Pan Am region. Earlier this year, Soledad ran a PAHF course for umpires in Trinidad and Tobago. Speaking at the event, Roger St Rose, chairperson of the PAHF Umpiring Committee said: “We are very fortunate to have an umpire of such quality here in Trinidad and Tobago, willing to share her extensive experience on the finer points of the game.”

Ireland’s Carol Metchette, who has worked alongside Soledad on many occasions and was one of the video umpires at Rio 2016, sums up Soledad and her impact upon the game: “What can I say about Soledad? She really is one of a kind. She sets the standard for everyone to follow. She's passionate about her umpiring and very professional. A legend for sure.”