Megan Rapinoe thrives on noise. Most athletes strive to be “in the zone”—that state of quiet mental focus enabling players to block out the cheers and jeers of stadium crowds, allowing performance to peak. Rapinoe, however, takes in all the chatter. “I’m hearing the crowds, I’m hearing the fans,” she says.
Rapinoe’s embrace of commotion has defined her career. She’s one of the most talked-about American athletes of our time, a 5-ft. 7-in. whirling dervish of resistance who, depending on whom you ask, is either an unapologetic symbol of on-field excellence and off-field progress or a disrespectful heel. (Or, if misogyny or homophobia is your bag, worse.) More than a decade ago, she came out as gay, giving many other female sports figures permission to be more open about their sexuality. She has since worked tirelessly as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community—she’s the brightest athletic star currently leading a fight against the proliferation of U.S. state laws that ban transgender youth from playing on teams consistent with their gender identity. Rapinoe has also knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and led a protracted but ultimately successful battle against her own soccer federation to ensure equal pay for female players. After Donald Trump criticized her during the 2019 World Cup, she scored against France and struck a now iconic pose that reminded the then President, and her vociferous critics, that she’s going absolutely nowhere.
Last year, Joe Biden awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. She’s the first soccer player so recognized.Rapinoe is entering her fourth and final World Cup, which kicks off July 20 in the dual host nations of Australia and New Zealand and promises to be the best-attended and most-viewed women’s sporting event in history. She announced on July 8 that she will retire at the end of the 2023 NWSL season. Rapinoe will likely play a more muted on-field role, as a reserve and veteran mentor for younger players on the U.S. team, which is seeking to make history as the first squad, women’s or men’s, to win three consecutive World Cup titles. Injuries to several prominent U.S. players, however, could call Rapinoe, who turned 38 in early July, into action. A repeat of her brilliant 2019 performance is unlikely, but no longer impossible.
No matter how Rapinoe fares at the tournament, she’s secured her place as one of the world’s most influential athletes. Her creative and joyful play helped elevate women’s soccer to the status of appointment viewing. Female players around the world have followed the example of Rapinoe and her teammates and waged pay fights against their federations. She created a blueprint for female athletes: Tap into your truest self and demand what’s yours. Lay waste to the notion of being agreeable.
“In the past, a lot of female athletes—in our generation, for sure—were told to sit down, to be quiet, to be grateful,” says former U.S. soccer player Julie Foudy, one of the stars of the 1999 World Cup–winning national team, whose victory helped bring women’s sports into the consciousness of many fans. “What Rapinoe has brought to the equation is the idea of we’re going to have to boldly disrupt. History has shown that women like her lead people over that line. She hasn’t given a rat’s ass what people think. This is who she is, and what she does. There’s freedom to that.”From her earliest days, Rapinoe was a tempestuous force. She grew up in Redding, Calif., a remote pocket of red in deep-blue California some 140 miles north of Sacramento. Her father Jim worked as a building contractor; her mother Denise was a waitress at Jack’s Grill, a local steak house, for 36 years; she retired on June 30. “When she was convinced she needed something, and my parents wouldn’t give it to her, she would hold her breath until she passed out,” says her twin sister Rachael. On Megan’s left hand is a tattoo reading “Mammers”—a nickname for Denise. Her right-hand ink reads “Ma Barker”—a nickname her grandfather gave her, much to her mother’s chagrin, after the matriarch of a criminal gang, because of her tantrums.
Her parents would shuttle the girls five hours, round trip, to travel to team practices in the Sacramento area. They both received athletic scholarships to the University of Portland and won a national championship. From Megan’s initial tours with the national team, her approach stood out. In one training session, she crossed the ball behind her plant leg, a bit of fancy footwork that earned her a reprimand from one of her veteran teammates. Keep it simple, the vet said. After practice, however, Rapinoe insisted to Abby Wambach—the all-time leading goal scorer in U.S. history—that she made the perfect play. “She’s not wrong,” says Wambach. “Megan is always trying to creatively figure out what’s the best way, the most fun way, to get the job done.”At the 2011 World Cup, Rapinoe’s cross to Wambach, this time in front of her plant leg, as per tradition, late in a quarter-final game against Brazil kept America’s chances alive. (The U.S. ultimately lost to Japan in the final.) At the London Olympics the next year, where the U.S. won gold, Rapinoe scored two goals in an epic 4-3 semifinal victory over Canada, including a goal scored directly off a corner kick, known as an “Olimpico” in soccer circles. She was the first to notch an Olimpico at the Olympics.
Rapinoe played a key role in the 2015 U.S. World Cup win in Canada, the country’s first title since 1999. But her career came to a crossroads a year later when she became the first white professional athlete to kneel during the national anthem. “It felt like this is what Colin was asking for,” Rapinoe says. To this day, Rapinoe believes that if white NFL players, especially fellow quarterbacks like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, had knelt to support Kaepernick, he’d still be playing. “Everything looks different, 100%,” she says.
The blowback was immediate, violent, and visceral, Rachael recalls. Rapinoe received death threats. Jack’s management took down a montage of her photos behind the bar. Patrons sought out Denise to voice their displeasure. “Men can be really abrasive about it,” says Denise. One guy told her, “We love you. But I just wish Megan was different.” Denise replied, “Megan is just perfect the way she is.” The man grew angry and grabbed Denise’s arm before his wife and another couple settled him down.
Around this time, Rapinoe started dating WNBA star Sue Bird, now her fiancée. Bird is five years Rapinoe’s senior, and diligent in her nutrition and training habits. These weren’t Rapinoe’s strengths. During her national-team exile, Rapinoe started following Bird’s regimen. “The silver lining was, she had a big chunk of time to really work on her soccer self and get into peak shape,” says Bird, who retired at the end of the 2022 WNBA season, at 41, and whose Seattle Storm jersey now hangs in the rafters. “She came back and balled out.”
During the 2019 World Cup, the soccer publication Eight by Eight released a video from earlier that year of Rapinoe saying that if the U.S. team won the title, she wouldn’t go “to the f-cking White House.” Trump retaliated with a tweetstorm questioning Rapinoe’s patriotism and imploring her to “WIN first before she TALKS.”
Rapinoe’s remarks sparked a fresh wave of hate. Even Bird’s sister received an ominous text message demanding she instruct Bird to “tell her girlfriend to shut the f-ck up.” In the team’s next game, a quarter-final clash in Paris against France, Rapinoe opened the scoring on a gorgeous free kick: she jogged to the corner, extended both arms while staring up into the screaming crowd, and flashed a—her words—“sh-t-eating grin.” Trump was on the brain. “If I could have done this …” she says with a laugh, mimicking the celebration, and extending a middle finger. “Could you just imagine?”To Rapinoe, who would win the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, the gesture also carried a deeper message. “You can’t stop progress,” she says. “No matter how hard you try. Out of nowhere, this freakin’ purple-haired lesbian is going to come in and be like, F-ck you.”
Rapinoe’s pet theory is that Trump is secretly a fan. “You know he was watching that game,” she says. “You know he had his McDonald’s lined up. And he was probably like, ‘You know what, I love that.’ I always felt Trump loved me.” Rapinoe insists—and a U.S. Soccer official confirms—the Trump White House back-channeled an invite, which the team declined. (Spokespeople for the Trump 2024 campaign did not return a request for comment.)
In fact, Rapinoe is convinced she has fewer haters than most people think. “I’m exactly what they’re familiar and comfortable with, just packaged up differently,” Rapinoe says. “But I’m exactly the brash, arrogant athlete that Americans love.”
After Rapinoe knelt before a national-team game vs. Thailand, U.S. Soccer put out a statement tsk-tsking her without naming names: “We have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.” At the next game, the crowd in Atlanta booed her when she entered as a second-half sub. She was told not to dress for the two games that followed. According to Rapinoe, coach Jill Ellis blamed the benching on her fitness. In early 2017, Rapinoe was left off the roster for the annual SheBelieves Cup held in the U.S. “No one is going to say this,” says Rapinoe, “but I feel like they were happy to just let me go out to pasture.” (U.S. Soccer declined to comment.)The two-time defending World Cup champion forward for the U.S. is reclining on a restaurant couch in Seattle, where she plays for the OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), wearing rhinestone-studded jeans and a tricolored shirt—white, red, and black—with a flower pattern running down the sleeves. “Every time I go over for a corner kick,” says Rapinoe, “I’m always like, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’”