The first of many heroic moments for Megan Rapinoe came in the quarterfinals of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in the eastern German city of Dresden.
It was there, at a stadium named after Nazi Olympic athlete Rudolf Harbig that one of America’s most iconic women’s soccer players was on the pitch with her United States team desperate for a goal.
Down 2-1 to a talented Brazil side in the 122nd minute, a then-25-year-old Rapinoe hit a long cross into the box with her weak foot that found the head of Abby Wambach. The striker turned it in and sent the game to penalties – which the USA won, thanks in part to Rapinoe converting her spot kick.
It was the spark that grew into a blaze of a career that meant just as much on the pitch as it did off it. Rapinoe, who would go on to win two World Cups with the United States and the women’s Ballon d’Or in 2019, became an outspoken activist and advocate for civil rights, equal pay, and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. Her outspoken nature would make her an icon and a role model to many, while also painting a target on her back.
But Rapinoe has never been one to shy away from what she believes in. As her career on the field is set to come to a close by the end of this NWSL season – and with a World Cup ahead between now and then – Rapinoe will have yet another chance to remind the world of her impact on and off the pitch.
Megan Rapinoe is set to end her long, decorated career at the end of this NWSL season
The lesbian activist and icon is set to step away from her on-field career after four World Cups
Rapinoe & the US are favorites to win the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia & New Zealand
If it wasn’t for her older brother Brian Rapinoe, Megan may not have even picked up the sport where she made her name.
Megan idolized him and began playing soccer at age three after watching him play the game.
Brian had personal struggles of his own – including a drug addiction that had him arrested as a teenager and in and out of correctional facilities throughout most of his young adult life.
But his interest in soccer inspired both Megan and her twin sister Rachael to take up the sport at the same time. They even went to the University of Portland to play on the college team together.
In their sophomore years, they both came out to each other as gay and they’ve shared a bond ever since.
But their careers took different turns – with Rachael retiring from professional soccer by 2012 after playing overseas in Iceland.
Rapinoe and her twin sister, Rachael, pictured at the White House in July of 2022
By that time, Megan had already established herself within the US Women’s National Team.
Her World Cup debut came at that 2011 World Cup tournament – where she scored a goal against Colombia and had the first of many memorable celebrations.
After rocketing her shot into the top right corner, she ran to the corner flag in Sinsheim, saw a field microphone, tapped on it, then sang the words ‘Born in the USA’ into it.
She would end that tournament with three assists – including the aforementioned Wambach goal.
Rapinoe described her assist, saying, ‘I just took a touch and friggin’ smacked it with my left foot. I don’t think I’ve hit a ball like that with my left foot. I got it to the back post and that beast in the air [Wambach] just got a hold of it.’
She also notched an assist to Alex Morgan on the first goal of the 2011 Final. The USA would go on to lose that match on penalties, with Rapinoe subbed off in the 113′ for Tobin Heath.
Rapinoe celebrated her first goal at a World Cup in 2011, singing ‘Born in the USA’ into a mic
Rapinoe (15) assisted Alex Morgan (pink hairband) in the 2011 final the USA ultimately lost
The sting of that defeat would serve as inspiration for the 2012 Olympics, where the United States was looking for revenge after their defeat a year prior.
Rapinoe shone brightest on the semifinal stage against rivals Canada, scoring goals in the 54th and 70th minute.
The first was a sublimely taken free kick that went through three pairs of legs into Canada’s net while the second was a wonderfully struck effort that went in off the left post.
The US would go on to exact revenge over Japan in the finals with a 2-1 victory at Wembley as the Americans won their fourth gold medal. Rapinoe scored three goals and notched three assists throughout that campaign.
But that desire for a World Cup was still on the minds of an American squad inspired by the heroines of 1999, an all-time great squad graced with names like Lilly, Foudy, Akers, Overbeck, Scurry, Hamm, and Chastain.
Rapinoe and the USA exacted revenge on Japan by winning gold at the 2012 Olympics
It was Rapinoe’s first success on the international stage with the United States
By 2015, that ’99 victory in Pasadena was almost haunting – as the Americans settled for two third place finishes and that dreaded runner-up spot in the three prior tournaments.
Rapinoe’s 2015 was not nearly as individually successful as her previous endeavors, bagging just two goals and an assist.
But her impact on the field helped the United States get the job done.
Her low cross into the box in the final against Japan found the feet of Carli Lloyd – who would go on to bag a hat trick – and led to the United States clinching their third World Cup title.
It was during that tournament that Rapinoe was named to her first All-Star Squad and Dream Teams of the World Cup.
In 2015, Rapinoe assisted the first goal by Carli Lloyd (right center) in the World Cup final
The United States won their first world title since 1999 with their revenge defeat of Japan
By the time the 2015 World Cup had came and went, Rapinoe had fully established herself not only as a skilled player on the pitch, but an outspoken advocate off it.
She became the first white athlete to kneel for the national anthem, doing so in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the first time in an early September 2016 game against the Chicago Red Stars.
‘It was a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now,’ Rapinoe said after the game. ‘I think it’s actually pretty disgusting the way he was treated and the way that a lot of the media has covered it and made it about something that it absolutely isn’t.
She continued, saying, ‘Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties.
‘It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it.’
Rapinoe was criticized, including by the Washington Spirit – who committed a faux pas by suggesting that she was ‘hijack[ing] this tradition’ just four days prior to the anniversary of 9/11.
US Soccer also suggested they disliked her protest, saying, ‘As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.’
Rapinoe went on to say that a rule US Soccer made requiring its athletes to stand for the anthem was made ‘without ever talking to me’ and added that she would never sing the Star-Spangled Banner again.
Rapinoe became the first white athlete to kneel for the national anthem, joining Kaepernick
In addition to her solidarity with Kaepernick, Rapinoe’s activism also extended to the LGBTQ+ community.
As a lesbian herself, now married to UConn and WNBA women’s basketball legend Sue Bird, Rapinoe has been on the forefront of advocating for the rights of those who identify as other than cisgender and heterosexual.
She’s been publicly out since 2012, and has advocated for the rights of all who include themselves in that community.
But in recent times, she’s been particularly outspoken about the transgender community and their role in sports – specifically those who have transitioned from male to female.
While some in the sports world, including tennis icon and fellow lesbian Martina Navratilova, have been against the inclusion of MTF (male-to-female) persons participating in women’s sports, Rapinoe has been in favor of that inclusion.
She recently told Time Magazine that she would welcome a trans woman onto the USWNT, saying that the argument that MTF people take the spot of a ‘real’ woman is a transphobic thought.
‘I see trans women as real women,’ Rapinoe said. ‘What you’re saying automatically in the argument—you’re sort of telling on yourself already—is you don’t believe these people are women. Therefore, they’re taking the other spot. I don’t feel that way.’
Rapinoe is an outspoken LGBT activist, having been out publicly since 2012
She’s now married to UConn and WNBA women’s basketball legend Sue Bird (right)
Rapinoe’s stance on trans inclusion in women’s sports isn’t held by all in the LGBTQ+ community, with tennis legend Martina Navratilova against male-to-female inclusion
In addition to advocating for others, Rapinoe has also vocally and legally advocated for herself and her teammates with her fight for equal pay for women’s soccer players.
Beginning with a complaint filed in March of 2016, which then led to a lawsuit in 2019, Rapinoe and the rest of the US Women’s National Team sued US Soccer accusing them of unequal treatment and compensation.
That lawsuit was filed just months before the USWNT was set to defend their World Cup title in France.
With that on the minds of the team, they set off to win a fourth title- but not without attracting controversy from the White House and it’s then occupant, Donald Trump.
Rapinoe, who often criticized the then-President, said she would not go to the White House if they won.
Trump then hit back at Rapinoe in a series of tweets, saying she should ‘WIN first before she TALKS!’ and to ‘Finish the job!’
Even before winning in France, Rapinoe refused a White House invite, angering Trump
With that gauntlet thrown down from the nation’s president, Rapinoe went to France and shoved it right back.
She scored six goals, five of which came in the knockout stage, as she went on to win the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot as the United States won their fourth World Cup.
Arguably the most iconic goal celebration in her lifetime, and maybe the most iconic in the women’s game, came in the quarterfinals against the host nation.
In just the fifth minute, standing outside the box, Rapinoe drilled a low free kick that made its way through everyone and went into France’s side netting.
She ran off to the corner flag at the Parc des Princes, and then stood there, arms outstretched, her pink hair prominent atop her head as a self-described ‘s**t-eating grin’ spread across her face. There were many more editions of ‘The Pose’ – as it was nicknamed – on display at this tournament, but this marked the first one.
It made a return again in the final, after she converted a penalty for the opening goal against Holland.
Rapinoe told Sports Illustrated that ‘The Pose’ was a symbolic ‘f*** you’ to US Soccer, to the President, to those that doubted the US women’s team. ‘You are not going to steal any of our joy,’ she said.
Within three years, Trump had been voted out of office and the women’s team had reached an equal pay agreement with US Soccer.
Her iconic performance at the World Cup was a beacon of hope in the Equal Pay movement
Rapinoe helped to lead the United States to its fourth World Cup title, defeating Holland
She won that tournament’s Golden Boot and Golden Ball, and eventually won the Ballon d’Or
2019 was a banner year for Rapinoe, who in addition to the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the World Cup, won the Ballon d’Or as well as FIFA’s ‘The Best’ award for the top women’s player.
But it was also the height of her career and since then, things have not been equally as bright thanks to a series of injuries and professional setbacks.
The US was embarrassed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, managing a bronze medal finish after Canada was able to exact revenge.
Rapinoe did manage two goals in the Bronze medal match victory over Australia, but the feeling was that the team could have – or maybe should have – done better.
Memories of that tournament will carry into the 2023 FIFA World Cup – which promises to have one of the most even playing fields in the history of the event.
Rapinoe’s most recent international tournament endeavor did not yield the same success
The United States fell to Canada, who went on to win Gold in Tokyo. The USA won bronze.
That’s now on the mind of Rapinoe and the USWNT, who are favorites to win in 2023
While the United States are favorites to win the title, they’ll have tough competition like England, Germany, Spain, and France to contend with. Their group features the likes of Portugal and the team they beat in the 2019 final, Holland.
It promises to be a competitive tournament and while the USA will be in good hands when Rapinoe moves on, it’s not clear how she will feature in this World Cup.
Unlike in the past, Rapinoe will be competing for starts against the likes of young stars like Sophia Smith, Lynn Williams, and Trinity Rodman. At 38, it’s hard to see Rapinoe commanding those minutes away from these players like she would have in 2019.
But in an analysis of the roster, ESPN’s Caitlin Murray said: ‘Even if she’s not a 90-minute player anymore, she has come through in the clutch and delivered in enough big moments for the USWNT that there’s no question she’s the substitute you want if you’re trying to close out games.’
Rapinoe appears to have accepted that role, and understands that her retirement will allow for clarity not only for herself, but for the national team.
‘I think [announcing her retirement] allows me to focus a lot more, allows the team to focus a lot more,’ she said. ‘We don’t have to get questions every time, every single game. It’s just kind of out there and I can just really enjoy it and focus on trying to win the tournament.’
Rapinoe will be competing for starting time amongst a talented group of American wingers
She’s said that her retirement will allow both her and the team to ‘focus a lot more’ on success
Rapinoe’s career on the field is not yet done, but it’s waning – and has been doing so for a while.
But her status has evolved from beyond the pitch. Now, she’s become more than her on-field play and is now linked with the causes that she advocates for.
Megan Rapinoe is more than a soccer player. She’s been more than a soccer player for quite some time now. Her legacy will lie somewhere on the spectrum of athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Muhammad Ali who are just as associated with their dominance and success in their sport as they are with their activism and protest away from athletics.
While there’s still one final chapter to be written in the playing career of Rapinoe, her story is far from done, her voice is far from silent, and her impact will remain to be felt for generations to come.