Perspective | Megan Rapinoe’s incandescent career changed more than women’s soccer

An illustration shows USWNT player Megan Rapinoe wearing No. 15 jersey and posing in an iconic celebration pose, surrounded by streaks and sunbursts.
(Jonathan Bartlett for The Washington Post)

CARSON, Calif. — The tattoo, petite and scripted in cursive, reads: “Nature ran her course.” Megan Rapinoe had the phrase written on her left biceps long ago, and as dusk falls upon her vibrant soccer career, the words sound like a prophecy fulfilled.

Notice the distinction from the saying, “Let nature take its course.” There is no hint of docility in the Rapinoe variation, no submission to letting life happen without resistance. On her skin is a reminder to be comfortable in her skin. In a world that can torment and restrain, Rapinoe is who she was intended to be: bold, empathetic and unavoidable. She is a master of meeting consequential moments. She is a natural icon.

Just months from retirement, Rapinoe enters her final World Cup in a supporting role. Instead of receiving major playing time and being asked to repeat her Golden Ball heroics from the United States’ 2019 triumph in France, her greatest responsibility may be to “lead the leaders,” as U.S. women’s national soccer team coach Vlatko Andonovski likes to say. Rapinoe cannot be her own sunset; she must relish it with others. For a player who enjoys good vibes as much as scoring goals, it is an appropriate way for her run to end.

This World Cup is the last for some of the players on the USWNT, including Megan Rapinoe. What is the legacy they’ll leave on and off the field? (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

“I could have never imagined where this beautiful game would have taken me,” Rapinoe said recently while announcing her retirement.

She let nature play tour guide, but she kept an eye on her compass. She found a way — a better way — by trusting her standards of humanity. She created a lane to be at peace while striving for stardom as an openly gay woman who expresses herself freely on and off the field.

At 38, Rapinoe is 20 years older than teen prodigy Alyssa Thompson, an exaggerated example of the shift occurring on the dynastic U.S. women’s team and throughout the sports world during a period of constant goodbye-waving to legends. As Rapinoe prepares to depart, she necessitates something beyond the standard salute. With dogged flair, she has modeled a new prototype for female superstars. There is new room for women to be audacious, not just cute and demure. There is room to be unapologetically competitive and unafraid to offend.

As Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark showcased during the NCAA basketball tournament, the next generation is flaunting authenticity and range. These athletes reject rather than appease those who look at them with a disapproving gaze. Outside of Serena Williams, Rapinoe has been as influential as anyone in her era at creating that space. And she is peerless among modern athletes in her stamina to take stands against social injustice.

Rapinoe has given her body, including two ACL injuries in college, to soccer. She has received envious treasures: two World Cup titles, an Olympic gold medal, international fame. But she will leave behind an invaluable template for self-possession.

“As cool as you think she’s going to be, you meet her, and she’s even cooler,” said U.S. defender Alana Cook, who also plays with Rapinoe for NWSL club OL Reign. “They say don’t meet your heroes. I think everyone should meet Pinoe.

“For someone as globally renowned and as important and popular as she is, what’s special about her is she makes every single person feel important and feel like they have her time. She makes everyone feel like they can be themselves, and they can show up as who they truly are.”

As a young U.S. forward, Rapinoe learned an enduring lesson from Kristine Lilly, whose national team experience spanned 23 years and 354 appearances. Lilly, a member of the revered 1999 World Cup championship squad, overlapped with Rapinoe, in her early 20s, before she retired in 2010.

Back then, Rapinoe was struggling to keep up with the veterans. She whimpered over to Lilly, who Rapinoe says “could probably still outrun all of us to this day.”

“I’m sure I was not doing very well and complaining about how hard it was and how easy it looked for her,” Rapinoe said. “And she just looked me dead in the face and was like, ‘It’s hard for everyone.’ ”

The words stuck. Rapinoe expanded their meaning, using them to strengthen her resolve and to be aware of people enduring hardships around her. Critics may try to dismiss her as a controversy addict, as if she could possibly enjoy all the taunts and death threats and social media graffiti. But in reality, she hasn’t been able to skip a fight — whether it was for equal pay and gender equality, Black Lives Matter or supporting transgender athletes — because the woman who calls herself “crazy little Megan” has crazy good intentions. If she understands it’s hard for everyone, then what’s her excuse for being indifferent?

“Everybody struggles in different ways,” Rapinoe said. “We’re not all going to struggle the same — on the field, off the field, emotionally, physically, mentally.”

Even when she’s making a point, Rapinoe will pause to learn. Seven years ago, when she decided to take a knee during the national anthem in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, it sparked deep conversations with Crystal Dunn, a Black teammate. Dunn was just as concerned about police brutality and racial inequality, but as a newcomer she didn’t think she had enough U.S. Soccer cachet to make a statement, especially because Rapinoe’s stance had put the star at odds with the federation. So Dunn stood, famously next to a kneeling Rapinoe before a match. When photographers captured the image, it became fodder for the ignorant, who poked fun at the woke White woman doing what a Black woman wouldn’t.

Dunn felt she couldn’t, actually. When she lived the experience through Dunn, Rapinoe saw the many layers of courage and privilege. Rapinoe’s bold was a safer bold. It’s hard for everyone, but it can be harder for others. She understood the significance of being a famous White athlete willing to sacrifice some of her popularity.

“As much as it meant to me, think about what it said to future players, who were kids and teenagers and are here now,” Dunn said.

Said Cook, a 26-year-old participating in her first World Cup: “I think she’s someone who will ride as hard for a cause that affects her as one that doesn’t, which is really special. It’s what makes her such a good leader. It’s what makes her such a good human, to be empathetic and see the humanity in others and fight for it. I think it’s always worth taking the venom, taking the pushback when you know that you’re on the right side, when you know that you’re fighting for people who need it.

“And when you’re 38 and your playing days are almost over, I mean, how do you hope people talk about you?”

Rapinoe will retire in October, but she doesn’t plan to disappear. She certainly won’t be silent. As an athlete, she has used creativity, panache and a knack for big-stage excellence to boost her legend. Those traits fuel her disruptive powers, and they are just as potent without cleats.

In her soccer afterlife, the dissident aspires to be a different kind of authority figure. She wants to tap into her entrepreneurial instincts, and she wants to do it for freedom, not greed. After years spent challenging systems, she wants to build new ones.

“Megan has been working toward stepping off the pitch for about three years now,” said Jessica Clarendon, the chief operating officer of Rapinoe Ventures whose relationship with the player dates from their days playing high school basketball against each other in California. “She saw that she could build a business around who she is. Her retirement is intentional. She wants to create a blueprint for what a post-career can look like for female athletes now.”

Rapinoe has a Nike signature clothing line. She started the production company A Touch More with her fiancée, basketball legend Sue Bird, to produce scripted and unscripted content focusing on stories of activism and identity and people from underrepresented communities. They hope to center revolutionary figures and use storytelling to embed social progress into culture.

The loquacious Rapinoe has a pet phrase: “Welcome to the future.” She says it often when sharing her vision to leverage her fame to create inclusive businesses.

“She wants to build things that can sustain outside of her star power,” Clarendon said. “That will allow other people to be successful. She’s interested in ownership to be a gatekeeper in industries that are largely gate-kept by men who are White. She wants to show what successful business can look like without leaving people behind.

“She is, in some ways, a modern-day prophet. She sees in the world what’s not yet seen. She wants to make this world in her mind and in her imagination into a reality.”

In June, the Seattle Storm retired Bird’s No. 10 jersey during a postgame ceremony that lasted nearly three hours. Rapinoe and rapper Macklemore, a Seattle native, emceed the event. More than 2½ hours into the epic event, Bird tried to articulate what Rapinoe meant to her.

“You’ve changed me,” Bird told her that day. “You’ve changed my life. You’ve changed how I see things. You brought it out of me. It was in there. I just didn’t know how to get to it. And you saw it right away.”

The Rapinoe effect doesn’t just inspire audacity. There’s a peace about her, even amid chaos, that attracts people. And when they get close to her, the connection is uplifting. With Rapinoe, Bird identified her nature. She discovered her course. And she followed it with pride.

“It’s more of just a calm in my experience,” Bird said. “It feels just way better when people know who you are, what you stand for, what you’re about. It seems like a simple thing, but so much blocks you from being you. It’s not that way anymore.”

On their own, Rapinoe and Bird made an indelible impact. But in their six years as a couple, they have been incandescent change agents. Although Rapinoe accentuates individuality with her colorful hairstyles and brash celebrations, she functions best within a team. In this iconic pairing with Bird, Rapinoe shines when needed.

“She has an unwavering ability to rise to any occasion,” said Dan Levy, her longtime agent and a vice president at Wasserman. “It’s extraordinary. I’ve worked with some of the most incredible people — Hall of Famers, legends, the best who have ever done it — but Megan is the only one with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. That’s different. She’s just different in all the right ways.”

Bird must help Rapinoe say goodbye now. Before the ESPYs, Bird joked Rapinoe had “retirement FOMO” (fear of missing out) from watching the point guard move on with grace. Soon, it will be Rapinoe’s time. She just needs to help the U.S. team bridge its past and future.

“It’s a show-up-and-show-out kind of vibe,” Rapinoe said of this World Cup.

The battles of 2019 have already been won. U.S. Soccer finally has equal pay. Donald Trump, whom Rapinoe still jabs when reporters ask about him, has too many pressing legal matters to counterpunch effectively with the soccer star. Rapinoe may not have an enemy to target this time. Opponents will have to do.

In the first 32-team field in women’s World Cup history, the players will be able to see the game’s growth. It is a worthy send-off for a fighter such as Rapinoe.

“I don’t want to be fighting the way that we are,” she said. “It shouldn’t be necessary, but in so many ways, it is. I think what I see as the goal for us is not the comparison or an arrival point because that’s just a constant comparison to men’s sports and that goal post will just always be moved. But I think for us, it’s understanding that nothing ever stays the same, and you have to be in constant motion and in constant progress. As soon as we know one thing, we have more knowledge for something else and then an opportunity to continue to be better, to bring more people in, to make more space for people to be their full selves.

“So I think that’s something that’s so unique and powerful about women’s sports and just the landscape around women’s sports. What’s happening on the field is always just as important as what’s happening off. I think we have shown that we have the power to change the world in so many ways. I think as we’ve seen the world change around us, the more that we use our voice and create space for ourselves, we’re always creating space for other people also.”

Rapinoe, a 5-foot-7 giant, is the queen of creating space. Her nature. Her course. She’s still running, hard and free. When she stops and looks behind her, she will be moved by all the magnetic young women doing the same.

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