June 13, 2024

The picture — like the player — has become iconic. It’s Megan Rapinoe, standing with her arms outstretched after scoring the opening goal in a 2-0 win for the U.S. women’s national team over France at the 2019 World Cup.

There is an almost serene look on her face, as if she’d known she would deliver in that moment. Seconds later, she was mobbed by her teammates on the way to a critical quarterfinal win as the USWNT marched toward the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

In that instant, the celebration seemed simple. There was little you’d consider flamboyant or over-the-top about it — rather, there were many emotions wrapped up in that one pose.

There was confidence: This was a team that was on an unrelenting march to a world title and Rapinoe was the maestro, eventually scoring six goals that summer. But there was also a welcoming spirit, inviting the U.S. fans to celebrate right along with her. She seemed prepared to embrace every single one of them.

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There was vulnerability, too — there isn’t anything protective about having your arms wide open — and yet, the stance also conveyed a defiant clap-back at those who felt the USWNT’s quest for equal pay was a battle that wasn’t worth fighting. The pose said: We’re here for good, and there’s no stopping us. Rapinoe and the USWNT would unabashedly be themselves.

“It wasn’t my celebration, personally — it wasn’t just for me. It was that you and nobody will take our joy,” Rapinoe told ESPN after the tournament. “You won’t take our passion. You won’t rob this from us. You won’t take our happiness. We’re going to stand up with a smile, with our full chest exposed and put it all out there. This is what we want the world to be. This is the kind of openness, vulnerability, passion and unbridled joy we want in the world. I felt like I was doing it with everyone and for everyone.”

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1:21

Megan Rapinoe discusses the impact of Donald Trump’s tweets

Megan Rapinoe sits down for an exclusive interview with ESPN and explains how President Trump’s tweets united and emboldened the USWNT.

The game of soccer waits for no one, however — not even a stellar performer like Rapinoe. Now, at age 38, it’s time for Rapinoe to say goodbye, at least to the part of her life of a professional soccer player.

And what a career it has been. Rapinoe currently has 202 international appearances for the U.S. with 63 goals. Her name is etched in two World Cup triumphs in 2015 and 2019, as well as an Olympic gold medal in 2012. Starting in 2009, she has been equally prolific at club level, logging 201 appearances for the likes the Chicago Red Stars, the Philadelphia Independence, magicJack, Sydney FC, Olympique Lyonnais and OL Reign, all while scoring 67 goals. That doesn’t even begin to compare to the extent of her work off the field. For all of Rapinoe’s excellence as a player, the ultimately successful fight for equal pay may well be the most enduring part of her legacy.

On Sunday, that will all come to an end as the Redding, California, native will play her final match for the USWNT on Sunday against South Africa at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Rapinoe, who debuted for the USWNT in 2006, announced in July that she’d retire once the 2023 Women’s World Cup ended. There will still be club games with OL Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League to follow, and maybe even a final run at a league title. But the U.S. jersey is the one most closely associated with Rapinoe’s legendary time on the field, making the match a bookend to her career.

Rapinoe’s life certainly fills a few shelves already, befitting a player who will go down as the Billie Jean King of women’s soccer. There is Rapinoe the soccer player but also Rapinoe the activist, including the aforementioned fight for equal pay, racial equality and LGBTQIA+ rights.

For example, Rapinoe revealed she was gay in 2012 in an interview with Out Magazine, the first of many instances when she advocated for the rights of minority groups.

“For me, it’s important to come out,” she told ESPN in 2012. “There’s so much talk about it, it’s such a hot-button issue. I’m very proud of who I am, and I think that I’m on a certain platform to be able to stand up and be just who I am.

“I think people look up to us. And if they don’t look up to us, they follow us and support us. We’re much more scrutinized as a team now than we have been in a long time, and I just felt like this is who I am and I’m very proud of who I am and it’s important to stand up.”

She showed solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in 2016, when she took a knee during the national anthem prior to a league game with the Reign, and joined the protest he said was meant to highlight systemic racial inequality in America. She continued to do the same when on U.S. national team duty, which put her at odds with the U.S. Soccer Federation; in doing so, Rapinoe showed her willingness to take a stand, no matter how unpopular or what it might mean for her personal circumstances. That has led to another part of her life story: that of a villain to those who loathe her politics and her outspokenness.

This aspect is something that seemingly fueled her rather than weighed her down. She never flinched, even if it meant inviting the wrath of some segments of the sporting public when she said she wouldn’t “go to the f—ing White House” and meet with then-president Donald Trump if the U.S. won the 2019 World Cup. In her new role as a sword and shield — and voice — for groups that didn’t have the platform Rapinoe did, she became a target for those who didn’t want to hear about her advocacy or politics. Yet amid all of that, Rapinoe put on her most complete on-field performance during a World Cup in France.

There is also Rapinoe the resilient: It’s easy to forget she is a three-time member of the Torn ACL Club. Two of those came in back-to-back seasons when she was at the University of Portland. That kind of injury history makes it more miraculous that Rapinoe reached the heights that she did. “I know this sounds weird, but getting hurt was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Rapinoe told U.S. Soccer’s website back in 2009. “It really gave me a different perspective. Before, everything was going how it was supposed to be and I wasn’t really appreciative of what I was doing and what it took to be there.”

Rapinoe overcame all of that to craft a career replete with big moments.

One of the first, at least on the international stage, came in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. With the U.S. trailing Brazil 2-1 and just seconds of extra time remaining, Rapinoe found herself on the wing, in desperation mode. While many of her deliveries during her career were laser-guided, this one had more of a hit-and-hope to it, with Rapinoe hammering the ball in the general direction of forward Abby Wambach.

“I didn’t [see Wambach]. I don’t even think I looked up,” she told ESPN in 2015. “I took a touch and thought, ‘She better frickin’ be in there.’ I knew she would be in and around there somewhere, but I just thought, ‘I have to get this off my foot as soon as possible because [the whistle] could go at any minute,’ and I just hit it as far as I could. And Abby did it.”

Wambach did indeed, heading the cross home to tie the score — the latest goal in World Cup history, men’s or women’s — and it sent the game to penalties, in which the U.S. ended up prevailing 5-3 to advance.

“I just freaked out. Just like, ‘Yeaaaaah!’,” Rapinoe said about Wambach’s goal. “I ran halfway, stopped and celebrated a little, and then sprinted right to Abby. It was far! I was way further [away] than anyone. She went right over to the bench and I was on the sideline, so it was far. It was still a good amount of running.”

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3:17

Unapologetically Rapinoe: A story of Megan Rapinoe’s legendary career

Sue Bird guides us through Megan Rapinoe’s legendary journey as a USWNT superstar and the transcending work she’s done around the world.

By that time, Rapinoe the fashion icon was already beginning to take shape. There were the multiple social media accounts devoted to her peroxide blonde mane — she’s experimented with other hues since — even if the look initially took her mother, Denise, by surprise. U.S. Soccer sponsor Nike put Rapinoe’s hair — and just her hair — on a T-shirt, a sign of how unmistakable her look had become.

“My mom told me, ‘It’s the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself,'” Rapinoe said in 2012. “I was like, ‘Thanks, Mom. I’ll go ahead and take that as a compliment.'”

That cross in the 2011 World Cup was by no means the last big moment Rapinoe would enjoy. There were the two goals she scored, including an “Olimpico” direct from a corner, in the epic 4-3 Olympic semifinal win over Canada in 2012, a game rightfully remembered as a classic. There was also the brace she scored in a 3-1 win over Australia at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, one from long range.

There were crushing disappointments, too. Rapinoe didn’t get a chance from the spot in the USWNT’s penalty shootout defeat to Japan in the 2011 World Cup final, but it cut deep all the same. So did the recent 2023 Women’s World Cup, in which the U.S. and Rapinoe struggled immensely — including her rare missed penalty shootout attempt in the round-of-16 defeat to Sweden. Before that, Rapinoe hadn’t missed a penalty in the previous five years, dating back to Aubrey Kingsbury’s save for the Washington Spirit against the Reign in the NWSL.

None of that, however, will overshadow Rapinoe’s all-time great performance in 2019 at the Women’s World Cup in France. Her six goals tied her with the U.S.’s Alex Morgan and England‘s Ellen White for the most in the tournament. She edged out both players for the Golden Boot based on scoring hers in fewer minutes played, while also adding three assists. Most importantly, the USWNT lifted the trophy for a record fourth time, becoming just the second country to win back-to-back Women’s World Cups.

Her achievements were made more remarkable given that the USWNT were also engaged in a legal battle with the federation over equal pay, with Rapinoe at the forefront of that fight. For all the distractions that can surround a World Cup — not to mention how such things can undercut a team’s focus — that the USWNT triumphed under such circumstances remains impressive, and Rapinoe was the USWNT’s best player in that tournament. For all of Rapinoe’s excellence on the field, the ultimately successful fight for equal pay may well be the most enduring part of her legacy.

That Rapinoe was so willing to be front and center was something in which her teammates took immense comfort. She was similar in her interactions with media, willing to absorb the glare, leaving less experienced teammates the opportunity to focus on their own preparation. And through it all, Rapinoe was as open and honest as they come.

What the future has in store for Rapinoe is still to be determined, though her advocacy figures to remain at the forefront. The memories of her playing career are bound to fade, as they do with all athletes, even the greatest in a sport. But other images will endure, like a certain celebration in Paris that inspired a team, a sport and a generation.

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