September 22, 2023

Why Megan Rapinoe, With ‘So Much Still To Fight For’, Is Ready To Pass The USWNT Torch

CARSON, Calif. – Megan Rapinoe nestled on a ledge in the California sun, her blue hair shining, her body a little tired. It had been another long morning as the face of the US women’s national team. Another round of interviews to shape her sport word for word. She started on a podium next to Alex Morgan. Hours later, she snuck into a Dignity Health Sports Park suite. She was instructed to stand on an “X” and face the camera, but then she asked, “Can I sit?”

After all, it can be exhausting to have multiple jobs. Rapinoe is a football player, as well as a spokesperson, businesswoman, and social justice advocate. “Sometimes,” she admitted, all the fighting — with US Soccer, and FIFA, and the patriarchy, and a largely unjust society — was “incredibly exhausting.”

But at other times she pauses and looks around.

She’ll review everything the fights have brought, multifaceted progress throughout her sport, and many times she’d say, “I don’t even have to pause and think, it just sort of punches you in the face.” She sees it, for example, in the dozens of reporters and cameras that attended the USWNT’s pre-World Cup media day—which was non-existent prior to its first World Cup in 2011. She saw it on Sunday in the sold-out crowd that sent her team to the 2023 World Cup – as they played to 5,852 fans and 20,000 empty seats in 2011.

She sees it changeeverywhere.

“It definitely hits my bank account every month,” she said with a chuckle. “It will be in off-field sponsorship, it will be in the Champions League final, it will be in Camp Nou games, or games in the Emirates, or games in Mexico, whatever it is. or more happening in real time, and it’s hard not to be touched by it.”

She knows, of course, that ‘there is still so much to fight for’, that the battle has been won, but that the battle for gender equality continues. She sees that all over the world, too, and “it’s infuriating, to be honest.” Her team earned equal pay, but colleagues in Canada and Jamaica, in South Africa and elsewhere are still pushing for it – either for better working conditions, or for basic respect. FIFA and sponsors still invest much more in the men’s World Cup than in the women’s World Cup. And that’s the problem with inequality, “it runs in the background,” Rapinoe said. ‘That’s the current of the river. So we’re definitely still swimming upstream, we’re pushing up the boulder, which is frustrating.

However, she also knows that her dive is almost over – and that it’s time to pass the proverbial torch.

Megan Rapinoe of the United States arrives at the stadium ahead of an international friendly against Wales at PayPal Park on July 9, 2023 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
Megan Rapinoe arrives at the stadium on Sunday ahead of the USWNT’s broadcast game against Wales. On Saturday, she said the 2023 Women’s World Cup will be her last. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

She has known for some time that the 2023 World Cup will be her last. And so, even before announcing her impending retirement on Saturday, she said she had “made a concerted effort” to step out of the limelight and hand it over to her successors. She knows part of her role on this 2023 team is to prepare them. She’s not sure who the successors will be, but in an interview at the end of June she rattled off five names – Sophia Smith, Alyssa Thompson, Trinity Rodman, Naomi Girma, Alana Cook – and expressed her great confidence in them. .

“They are all so much further along [than my generation]better trained and more capable and better equipped to take on the mantle,” Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports.

“I mean, they’re big shoes to fill,” she added. “But they all have big feet.”

“They are all so much further along [than my generation], better trained and better able and better equipped to take on the mantle. I mean, they’re big shoes to fill. But they all have big feet.”Megan Rapinoe

Rapinoe’s evolving role as a massive public icon and team leader

Giving up spotlight isn’t something Rapinoe has found particularly easy since the summer of 2019. All this while suing US Soccer and sparring verbally with the most powerful human in the world — “ostensibly,” Rapinoe interrupted with a smile; “in theory” – she won the World Cup Golden Boot and Golden Ball, plus her second world title, and rose to a new stratosphere of fame. She graced magazine covers and red carpets. She engaged in politics and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. “After 2019,” she said, “everything has changed dramatically.”

Even to new teammates, she was no longer just “Megan” or “Pinoe.” She was Megan Rapinoeand that took some getting used to.

“She’s a huge public icon,” said goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury. Young people in their twenties now come into the USWNT camp and worship her.

“And then, after about two seconds, we dab it on and we’re cool,” Rapinoe explained. “But there’s another presence, I think — the same with Alex, the same with Becky [Sauerbrunn].”

Even Kingsbury, who is 31, recalls being “really shocked” by how Rapinoe was “just an amazing, average human in a way — when she’s really superhuman.”

Her comedic, disarming personality allows her to connect with the kids. The gulf is now between the size of Rapinoe’s public persona and her role on the court. She has struggled with nagging injuries for the past two seasons. She has been replaced in the starting eleven by Smith and Mal Swanson, and now probably by Rodman. US head coach Vlatko Andonovski often praises Rapinoe’s talent, but it is clear that her main task at her last World Cup will be to lead.

She will lead, partly with her voice, behind the scenes but also in front of cameras. She is the most confident and proficient public speaker on the team. She enjoys or tolerates interviews more than most. They are opportunities, but also responsibilities, burdens that Rapinoe takes on. In many cases, teammates are happy to let her take over.

But she also knows that there will come a time when the new stars on the field will be in front of the cameras. Some of them tell Rapinoe she’s “so good with media,” but she tells them, “Yeah, [because] I do it all the time. It’s practiced. I’m preparing. I’m learning these things so that when the camera is here, we’re in a mixed zone, it’s not like I’m just pulling things out of thin air. The preparation meets the moment.”

“And I think it’s important to step into those moments,” Rapinoe continued. It’s what she started doing ten years ago, and now she said, ‘I think I’ve tried to allow it [other] players to get into it more.

Leaving a legacy of change while empowering the next generation

None of this is to say Megan Rapinoe is done. She is still a weapon on the field that Andonovski Down Under will use. She will continue to
be a force off the field for decades to come, long after her playing career ends this fall, for as long as she pleases.

But she doesn’t shy away from reflection.

“Sometimes I think about how special it is to be a part of this generation of players in the US, especially the US national team players – Becky, Alex, Kelley. [O’Hara]Carli [Lloyd]Throw in the trash [Heath]Christian [Press], myself, I’m sure I let people out,” she said. “That generation of players, we left a pretty big mark on the game, and just the world at large. It is something I think we are all very proud of.”

Sometimes I just think how special it is to be a part of this generation of players in the US, especially the US national team players… we have left quite a significant mark on the game, and only on the world in general. It’s something I think we’re all very proud of.Megan Rapinoe

Now, or soon, it’s the turn of the next generation, and Rapinoe will volunteer to help where she can — because “this team means so much to all of us,” she said. But in many ways its work is already done.

Making changes is a legacy of USWNT that predates Rapinoe. It’s “the anticipation, which I think can come with a little bit of pressure,” she admitted. “But it’s like, yeah, this is what we do.” The downside of pressure is a precedent. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Rapinoe said. “You just have to keep fighting for progress. You just have to keep fighting for yourself.” Her generation won their biggest fight, for a lucrative CBA that could make them the highest paid national soccer team in the world. But along the way, they also laid a foundation that will ease the burden on their successors.

It is a tangible foundation that is reflected in the strong player association of the USWNT. And globally, “the whole landscape and business around the sport has changed dramatically in a way that makes it so much easier for everyone to jump in and keep progressing,” Rapinoe said.

It is also elusive. Girma felt it even before she became the next in line.

“Being at Stanford speaking out on important social justice issues was a big result of seeing the national team do that,” Girma said last month. “Being able to have them as a role model growing up, seeing how they use their platforms inspired me to say, ‘Okay, I know I’m in college, maybe not that big of a platform, but I still have always a voice, and I can use it.’”

It’s not for Rapinoe to tell them How to use those voices, or What to fight for, once she’s gone. “Each generation has its own particular grievances or inequalities that they face,” she explained. “And they know them best. We don’t know exactly what those will be.

“But,” she continued, “they can appeal to those of old, use the same language, use the same rhetoric. That’s what we’ve been doing all along. We go back to the 99ers, and what they endured, and the way they behaved. And I think this generation of players that comes after us will be able to do the same with us.”

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