Megan Rapinoe is a pioneer of the women's game. On the field, the nuanced wide play she brings to the U.S. women's national team has established her among the world's best and taken her to France. Off it, Rapinoe has embraced her sexuality and made herself something of a cultural icon.
The 27-year-old takes on life as she does an opposing fullback—with a fearless sense of adventure and the knowledge she has the smarts to prevail. She might not be as widely known as Hope Solo or Alex Morgan, but Rapinoe is every bit as deserving of our attention.
Born in California, Rapinoe was a second-round pick for the Chicago Red Stars in the 2009 WPS draft. She went from there to the Philadelphia Independence before MagicJack paid $100,000 to bring her to Florida in 2011. It says a lot about the struggles facing women's soccer in the U.S that the Independence are now defunct and MagicJack a team without a league.
Via a short stint with the Seattle Sounders, Rapinoe can now be found in Lyon, France, playing for the two-time reigning Champions League holders and exploring another bold new frontier in her career.
"In the women's game you're not going to make a ton of money, so if you can combine playing with personal experiences it's ideal," said Rapinoe in an exclusive interview with B/R.
"I've been really impressed with the professionalism so far. It's different to what I'm used to with the U.S. team, traveling and staying in hotels. The club has offices, you do your business and then there's a life outside soccer to explore. That's been nice."
Rapinoe is learning French and reaping the benefits of training with one of the best squads in women's soccer. As a player, she is working on honing her craft and developing the tactical side of her game.
"I have a free spirit, I can roam a bit, but I'm more intentional now," she said. "I want to be able to control a game tactically, in terms of my movement and by being a leader. I don't think I'm an armband person, but by dictating tempo I can dictate the way a team plays."
It should come as no surprise, then, that her role model is Andres Iniesta, the Barcelona and Spain midfielder. "He's brilliant, his movement and vision is unbelievable," Rapinoe said. "Lionel Messi is a talent the likes of which we won't see again, but Iniesta uses his football intelligence so well."
The next challenge after Lyon for Rapinoe will be the inaugural 2013 season of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), where she'll link up with U.S. teammate Solo at the newly formed Seattle Reign franchise.
It's another new dawn for women's professional soccer in the U.S. and Rapinoe is understandably cautious in her excitement.
"Everybody wants this league to survive," she said. "Nobody wants it to fail, we just have reservations. We want it to be as professional as possible, with good salaries and good organization. It's not going to be the biggest, baddest thing ever, but is has to be sustainable—so it can last for a good time."
Whatever happens to the NWSL, there are no such concerns for the well-being of the U.S. women's national team, who won a second successive Olympic gold at the London Olympics in 2012. A record crowd in Tennessee watched their 3-0 friendly win over Scotland this week, and Rapinoe and Co. are now a big feature of the American sporting landscape.
They too are in a new era. Pia Sundhage has moved on after four glorious years and been replaced by Scotsman Tom Sermanni. Rapinoe and her teammates were under his control for the first time this month.
"I think he (Tom) has a lot of the same qualities as Pia—he's relaxed and laid back," Rapinoe said. "He's trying to figure out us as much as we are him. We have a new coach but we're still the same team, with the same goals. It's refreshing to have a new voice."
The goal, of course, is to win the 2015 World Cup. And based on what happened in London, the U.S. will go to the tournament in Canada with high hopes of adding to their 1991 and 1999 triumphs.
"I guess we're one of the favorites," Rapinoe admitted, when pushed. "I have to back us. We have such a quality side, with such solid play and you have to rate our chances coming off the Olympics. Hopefully Tommy can make it happen."
As for Rapinoe's future, she has no set date in mind for retirement. Reaching Abby Wambach's haul of 200 caps might be beyond her (she has 69 so far), but we can expect to see her shock of blonde hair blurring down the touchline for some years yet in the red and white of the U.S. national team.
"I'll definitely want to play as long as I'm enjoying it and having fun," Rapinoe said. " It's a good thing in my life and I still think I have a lot left. I'll take the next four years then reevaluate from there, but I don't ever want to be hanging around and sort of making it."
It's all or nothing for Rapinoe, and that strength of conviction is also evident in her views on attitudes to sexuality. She came out as gay in 2012 and has been vocal in her opposition to "anti-gay legislation" being debated in Russia right now.
Reads a report by USA Today:
The bill, which is expected to pass, would outlaw "homosexual propaganda" making public events that promote gay rights and public displays of affection by same-sex couples illegal. St. Petersburg and a number of other Russian cities already have similar laws.
Rapinoe was more than willing to air her views.
"It's outrageous," she said. "We've gone through the civil rights movement and we look back embarrassed, the same is true with apartheid. How are people not seeing the correlation, the parallels? I honestly don't know why people care (about gay propaganda)."
It's a viewpoint the vast majority will share and one Rapinoe deserves huge credit for standing behind. As brave off the field as she is on it, "Pinoe" really is a fine example to all of us.