The first person I see in Rochester, New York, is a man riding a bicycle without any tires. He’s pedaling along on the alloy rims, which grind against the pavement. I’ve driven five and a half hours to one of America’s forgotten cities to talk with US Women’s National Team midfielder Megan Rapinoe.
Rapinoe has become one of the famous faces of the US women’s soccer team, after breaking out during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She went from super-sub to starter to star in the course of a few games. Rapinoe is quick regardless of whether or not the ball is at her feet. But when it is, her confidence amplifies. She isn’t afraid to try to beat her defender with a deft move or a quick combination play with her teammates. She seemed almost unstoppable playing on the left wing during the tournament. When she scored against Colombia during the World Cup, she celebrated by running to one of the microphones used to collect field-level noise for television broadcasts and singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
One year later, Rapinoe announced herself again when she helped the United States win the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in London, right after she revealed to the world that yes, she is gay. Rapinoe, twenty-nine, is one of the more experienced players on the US team that reclaimed the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1999 at this summer’s tournament in Canada.
Rapinoe again proved to be the difference-maker and creative fulcrum for the US team as they made their way to a rematch against Japan in the finals. This time, though, the United States made its most impressive showing on the world’s biggest stage before a record 25.4 million viewers nationwide, beating Japan 5 to 2. After the tournament, people came out in droves to welcome the team in New York City for the first-ever ticker-tape parade for a women’s sporting team in American history.
A year ago, I was scheduled to meet Rapinoe in the lobby of the Rochester Airport Marriott, where the team was staying. We’d never met before, but Rapinoe recognized me. We took a seat in the middle of the lobby, in front of a fireplace. She tugged on the neck of her hoodie, pulling it over her mouth as we did the weird introduction that comes with interviews—a mixture of flattery and awkward silence. Rapinoe was open and warm with her answers. The next day she would be anything but warm to the Mexican women’s team in a World Cup qualifying match.
I. THE BEGINNING
THE BELIEVER: What was your childhood like?
MEGAN RAPINOE: I’m from a big family. I grew up in a smaller town [Redding] in Northern California, one hour south of the Oregon border. Pretty standard, middle-class. I’m a twin and the youngest of six, so there are a lot of us. I got into soccer because my older brother Brian played, so my [twin] sister, Rachael, and I kinda followed in his footsteps, and then that just became our thing. We never went back.
BLVR: You guys drove a long way to play.
MR: Yeah, we did. There was no Class 1 or competitive league in Redding, so we had to travel. In our junior year we would try to go to practice once a week, so we would go down to training on Tuesdays—because our mom didn’t work on Tuesdays—so we would go down on Tuesdays and come back on the weekends. Then, in our senior year, it was more like on the weekends. It became too much and our coach let us just play games.
BLVR: Then how does this become a dream? How do you realize this is something you want to do competitively?
MR: I think midway through high school, when we really made the decision to play on the team in Sacramento and travel. I think from there it was like, OK, we know we can go to college on this, and that was sort of the main focus then. I wasn’t on the national team at that point. I think I got called in late in my junior year with the youth [national] team. Before that, it was more like, Yeah, it would be awesome to play on the national team, but more so it was like, We can go to college on this, and my parents didn’t have the money to pay for college. We loved it as well. In my junior and senior years I started playing with the national team, and then it became more of: OK, this could be something that I’m good enough to do and go beyond college doing this.
BLVR: Growing up with a twin, did that help with all the travel and playing? I imagine you guys had some sort of telekinetic power when playing together. You seem like you were a perfect fit on the field.
MR: We did. She always played defense and I played offensively, so we were on opposite ends of the spectrum, but I think more so off the field with emotional support and the confidence we gained from each other. I was sort of a late bloomer, shy and not as confident as she was, so I think I gained a lot of my confidence from her. Knowing she would be there, be there with me, made the prospect of going to this whole new city and whole new team a little easier. It was always nice to have that other person doing the same battle as you.
BLVR: And you were an honors student while doing all of this—you were a bookworm as well as a soccer player.
MR: We did OK. I wouldn’t call myself a bookworm; Rachael was much more of a bookworm than I was. But [school] was always very important to us. We were always the kind of kids who wanted to do well and our parents didn’t have to get on us too much. I think we both knew we had to do well to get into college, as well; that was something that always had a lot of importance in our family.
BLVR: I play soccer with two brothers, and someone on my team described how they practice together as “Harlem Globetrotters shit.” Did you and your sister practice like that together? (My brothers, sadly, don’t play soccer.)
MR: I don’t have real vivid memories of us just going out and practicing.
BLVR: You were just super athletic.
MR: Yeah, which I think explains why we both had the knack for being gamers and showing up for big games. But we played other sports as well; we ran track and played basketball.
BLVR: Do you think playing other sports helped you as a soccer player? There’s this movement that has kids playing one sport year-round, getting away from kids playing multiple sports.
MR: I do think it helped. I think just physically, with the development, but also mentally: you’re not getting burned out. I was always so excited to go and play soccer. I loved it, so I don’t know if having more would have deterred me from it or diminished that passion for it, but I just think the movement going on now is totally crazy. Parents are crazy, the kids are crazy, and it’s not necessarily producing more or better players in the end. If anything, it’s wrecking a lot of kids’ experience in youth sports. I think it’s less than 1 percent go on to college, and even less than that go on to the pros, so the majority of these kids are being thrust into this environment that is hypercompetitive and absolutely time-consuming and they’re not even going to get what everyone wants them to get out of it. So you might as well have them enjoy it, have fun, be able to do other things. It’s saddening, because I think a lot of kids’ sports experiences are tainted.
II. THE WORLD OF WOMEN’S SOCCER
BLVR: Being a female athlete, I look at how low Major League Soccer (MLS) players’ salaries are, but they’re not as low as professional women’s soccer players’ salaries. How do you guys get this league to hold on, keep it going?
MR: That’s the million-dollar question. I think right now it’s in its infancy, so it needs to be sustainable and have a very smart business plan where you do have to watch the bottom line. There is only a certain amount of money you can lose each year and still be willing to do it. I don’t think any of these owners are doing it for charity. I think, ultimately, they have this goal of eventually making money, which is what the MLS did, and they are now making a significant amount of money, which is brilliant. But it does have to start out with a very low budget. We’re going to have to take things on the chin at times. BLVR: Going back a bit, you were selected as number two in the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) draft in 2009, and then were traded to magicJack, which was owned by Dan Borislow. There were all these horror stories about him as an owner. Can you talk about what happened in Florida?
MR: I don’t know a lot of the stories firsthand. I went there after the World Cup and only played there for a month, and at that point Dan Borislow was quite removed from the team.
BLVR: Were you surprised when the league tried to force him out and then ultimately dissolved?
MR: I wasn’t surprised they pushed him out. I felt like they didn’t believe he was actually going to be sustainable. It’s unfortunate because he did have passion for it and have the money for it, which is what we need. But you can’t let just anyone in [just because] they have the money if they’re going to treat people the way that he did. I think the writing was a little bit on the wall with him.
BLVR: When the WPS folded, you went to Lyon, France. What was your experience in Lyon like? Was it a bit of a culture shock?
MR: In ways. I was the only American on the team, and there was a handful of players who spoke English, but it definitely was not preferred. You came to find out that everyone spoke English; they just didn’t want to speak it. I’m like, “For six months you wouldn’t speak English?” But it was really good for me, I think. It was nice to be in one place, have an apartment, and have that consistency—which is what I needed—and that stability while still being upheaved to a new country. The team was brilliant. I felt I learned so much and my game really grew, and I had to adapt my game but also bring what I had, which is different from what the French players had. It was difficult to do that at times because my individuality wasn’t always as appreciated as I would have liked it to be, but I think it ultimately grew on them just as much as their style grew on me.
BLVR: So what was different on the field?
MR: The team I played on was basically the French national team plus four other top internationals—one from Sweden, two Japanese players the first year and then one the second year, and a Swiss player. It was like an all-star team. Just the day in, day out of training with those players—the quality of players from top to bottom—challenged me in different ways. Technically I think they’re better than us, but the speed and strength that we play at makes you be technical as well. That’s difficult in its own right. I feel like what I gained there only made me better here.
BLVR: And eventually you grew into living in Lyon and your neighborhood?
MR: I did. I really enjoyed it. The French are different. The stereotype is the French are arrogant, but I don’t think they’re arrogant. I think they’re more reserved, and almost afraid to put themselves out there. They just thought I was the craziest thing ever, like my personality, just everything. They thought I was so wild—my individuality and how I express myself. I’m not afraid to be an individual, and I think that is very celebrated here and I think that’s not that celebrated there—more so in the sports world. In general, people are a little afraid to step out.
III. THE BREAKTHROUGH
BLVR: You said your injuries in college grounded you—how? I’m trying to understand this.
MR: I think that they taught me a different way of working and a different kind of mental strength. I was out for two years. Up until that point, I hadn’t had any major injuries, so I feel like it taught me to trust my body, to trust myself, and to really emotionally and mentally be much stronger than I was before.
BLVR: Did that help you make your breakthrough at the 2011 World Cup?
MR: I think that mental resolve to always back yourself, to always have confidence in yourself—it was tough through that injury. People believe in you, but they don’t know how you’re going to come back until you come back and show them you’re the same or better. I think I gained internal confidence. A calm confidence. I’m in control of that, and I can overcome anything to get on the field, or get where I want to.
BLVR: We have to talk about the cross against Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup—your famous pass. That cross set up the game-tying goal, which got you into the finals of that tournament—and won you the game in the final few hair-raising minutes.
MR: I knew Abby [Wambach] was going to be in there; she’s always in there. Did I try to hit it where it went? No. Abby was just on the money. It wasn’t an easy header to finish. She was on the outside of the post. But, no, at the time it was just like, I just have to get it in there somehow.
BLVR: Did anything change for you after that? Did you see a difference in fans when you got back from the World Cup?
MR: It was huge. It was massive. I felt like after Mia [Hamm] and those guys retired, it took a hard dip for the team and the popularity of women’s soccer. After that, it’s been all uphill. Coming home and having the support we did—and we didn’t even win!—that was very telling for us. I think it shows the growth in fandom, too. People start to understand more than winning and losing. Have you seen that kind of growth in the game since you started playing as a kid? The understanding of the nuances of soccer in America? It’s everywhere. It’s catching on. Is it the NFL yet? No.
BLVR: Does it need to be the NFL? MR: Yeah, why not? For a soccer fan, that would be awesome. Something is going to have to take its place, because the NFL is dying out, anyway. Eventually it will.
BLVR: Do you ever worry about concussions?
MR: I don’t, personally. I’ve never had a concussion—knock on wood. I worry about the players in the NFL, though. It’s scary. Very scary. Every time I watch an NFL game, I don’t know how there’s not gruesome, horrific injuries every play.
IV. COMING OUT
BLVR: You came out as gay in 2012. What made you decide? What made the decision easier?
MR: It started to feel very awkward to me that I wasn’t out. It started to feel very uncomfortable that I wasn’t out, because I didn’t have any problem with being gay and I didn’t have any reason to hide it or admit it. I wasn’t admitting it to or hiding it from [anyone] else. I think I just started to think about it and talk about it with my agent and talk about it with friends and family, and for me, personally, it just became weird to not be [out]. I think that’s the best way to describe it: it became very weird and not very authentic for me not to be out.
BLVR: And you seem very authentic.
MR: And I think I’m really gay and I think everyone knew that I was really gay and fans knew I was gay and the media knew I was gay and I was totally comfortable with that. It was totally fine.
BLVR: Your teammates all knew?
MR: Yeah, everybody. Then it was just, OK, this is awkward.
BLVR: Were you surprised by the reaction at all?
MR: Not very surprised. I didn’t think I was going to receive much negativity about it, or negative comments. There have only been a few that I have seen. I feel like it wasn’t a huge shock to people, also. The fact that I was coming out and that was important and people wanted to talk about it and wanted to write stories on it and get the word out there and talk about it—[that] was the best part.
BLVR: How have you seen the landscape change for gay athletes since you came out? Has it changed?
MR: I think it’s kind of becoming that way [not an issue or a story]. I think it’s for women that way. For men, I think it’s changed in a sense that it has become unacceptable to have those discriminatory stances or say things. Even to have those thoughts is unacceptable. I think with the NFL, Michael Sam coming out was brilliant, and it really called out the people who still have those feelings and still think it’s acceptable to even ask the question, Is it going to be OK if Michael Sam is in the locker room? To me, that is totally unacceptable. Don’t flatter yourself— it’s going to be fine.