Megan Rapinoe exclusive: From 'gangster' and tomboy, to trailblazer and champion

PASADENA, CA - AUGUST 3:   Megan Rapinoe #15 of the United States the United States international friendly match against Ireland at the Rose Bowl on August 3, 2019 in Pasadena, California.  The United States won the match 3-0 (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe playing for the USWNT (Credit: Getty Images)

Megan Rapinoe was practically born a trailblazer. The purple hair, tiff with Trump and FIFA Best Women’s Player award may have come 34 years later, but from a young age the inspiring American was always looking to fight injustice with her words and her feet.

“My grandpa used to call me Ma Barker. She was this gangster in Florida in the 1920s,” says Rapinoe, who co-captains the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) alongside Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan. Her grandfather Jack sadly died in August aged 94, but he did see his granddaughter lift the 2019 Women’s World Cup trophy calling it “the happiest day” of his life.

“Grandpa nicknamed my [twin] sister Rachael, ‘Muffin’, which tells you the different temperaments we had. I was the one full of energy, questioning everything and basically settling for nothing.

“I was wild and hungry for sport. Soccer wasn’t popular or accessible to girls in America, so I played some street hockey and basketball. I was a tomboy. But then the 1999 World Cup came [to America] and I was like, ‘Woah, I can be a pro soccer player!’”

A 15-year-old Rapinoe watched on in awe as Brandi Chastain coolly slotted home the winning penalty in the stifling Californian heat as the USWNT beat China on penalties to claim their second Women’s World Cup.

Chastain’s shirtless celebration – and the subsequent player pile on – remains the iconic image of the 1999, or any, Women’s World Cup, but it was Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly who inspired the young Rapinoe.

Brandi Chastain of the US shouts after falling on her knees after she scored the last goal in a shoot-out in the finals of the Women's World Cup with China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California 10 July 1999. The US won 5-4 on penalties.  (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/HECTOR MATA (Photo by HECTOR MATA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Brandi Chastain at the 1999 World Cup final (Credit: Getty Images)

“The ‘99rs’ were badass,” smiles Rapinoe, who was also influenced by American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde. “I had these posters of Kristine on my wall as a kid. I loved her and, honestly, I could barely control myself when I met her for the first time. Then you have Mia and Julie, who just paved the way and we all have them to thank for where we are now.”

Shortly before her 24th birthday, Rapinoe joined Chicago Red Stars – the start of a professional football career that would see the mazy winger win 158 caps, score 50 goals, lift two World Cups and take home a gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics.

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Yet despite a glittering career – that also boasts a Division 1 Feminine title with Olympique Lyonnias – the past six months have been nothing short of breathtaking, with Rapinoe suddenly lauded as both a football icon and a globally-respected advocate for inclusion.

As a feminist and proud lesbian, she has focused her voice on issues of gender equality and LGBTQ rights but also gone toe-to-toe with American president Donald Trump and even her own federation, who the entire USWNT are currently suing for equal pay.

“The Trump feud just blew up,” admits Rapinoe, who was videoed [by Eight by Eight magazine] saying, “I’m not f*cking going to the White House” should the USWNT win the Women’s World Cup. “He was rude and disrespectful. His response was like, ‘Shut the hell up and win before opening your mouth’. Well, guess what, we did. The US Women’s National Team is something to be proud of, not attack, and yet somehow I was the one who was being called disrespectful.

“My message to the President now is exactly the same. He keeps saying he will ‘Make America Great Again’, but the time he’s referring to really wasn’t that great for people like me – or anyone of colour or gays. If that’s making America ‘great’ again then aren’t we just taking a giant step backwards?”

Rapinoe has well and truly transcended football. She might not have Trump’s 65 million followers, but she’s edging closer to a million loyal fans of her own (plus a further 2.2 million on Instagram), who help amplify her message. Democratic firm Public Policy Poll also recently staged a tongue-and-cheek 2020 election match-up between Trump and Rapinoe, with the latter winning by one percent.

Clearly, Rapinoe is on a commendable crusade to change the fabric of not just football but society at large. But those close to her know and see a very different side of her – a self-mocking, goofy and ultimately grounded character desperate not to take herself too seriously… hence the pink hair.

“I was against it [the pink hair],” wrote her girlfriend and Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird in a column for The Players’ Tribune entitled, ‘So The President F*cking Hates My Girlfriend’. “I thought it was too impulsive and I voted no. Pink? Megan, are you sure? Don’t you think you might regret this? And Megan was just, like, ‘Nope. World Cup. Pink hair. I’m in. Let’s get it’… if you were ever wondering what the Rapinoe lifestyle was about, that’s it, truly.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 27:  Sue Bird (L) of the Seattle Storm and soccer player Megan Rapinoe attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on July 27, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe (Credit: Getty Images)

“The best way for me to explain Megan is she takes her work very seriously, but definitely not herself,” adds former USWNT midfielder Lori Lindsay, who roomed with Rapinoe during their time together on international duty. “A lot of crappy things are happening in the US and there are far too many people marginalised. Megan is one of the few people, in or outside of sport, who has a unique platform to give them a voice.

“But at same time she’s very down to earth. She is one of the funniest and silliest humans I know. She is really quite calm and certainly not the egotistical troublemaker she is sometimes painted as. She doesn’t try to make stuff about her.

“We used to sit next to each other on the team bus and also room together. She’s actually a bit of a joke stealer! I was always the funny one. I’d tell her a joke in private and suddenly I’d hear her broadcast it out loud and claim all the credit. She’s such a big personality. She’s always the one dancing and laughing in the dressing room and it’s infectious.

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“As for the Trump thing, there was only ever going to be one winner. I think he feels threatened by her. It’s yet another example exposing the lack of maturity of our President. He should have been cheering on the entire team, but instead created needless negative headlines. The real headline is the fact Megan is 34, at the top of her game and changing the world. Why on earth would you ignore that and instead chuck insults at her as she shines?”

Rapinoe is indeed at her footballing peak – both on and off the field. To scoop the FIFA Best Women’s Player award at 34 borders on the ridiculous when one considers she was close to rock bottom three years ago.

MILAN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 23:  Megan Rapinoe of Reign FC and United States poses for a photo with her The FIFA Best Women's Player Award following The Best FIFA Football Awards 2019 at Teatro Alla Scala on September 23, 2019 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Rapinoe with her FIFA Best Women's Player Award (Credit: Getty Images)

After the USWNT suffered a shock quarter-final exit to Sweden on penalties at the 2016 Olympic Games, Rapinoe could have conceivably walked away from international football. She had only just returned to action – rushed hastily back by manager Jill Ellis from 252 days on the sidelines with an ACL injury and, unsurprisingly, proved largely ineffective in Rio.

Then, immediately after the Games, she became embroiled in a row with US Soccer having joined ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice (specifically, alleged police brutality) by kneeling during the national anthem. US Soccer reacted by passing a bylaw forcing her to stand or face punishment.

“That was really when it all started,” says Lindsay, who won 31 caps for the USWNT between 2005-2013 and is currently a board member for US Soccer. “She knelt out of solidarity and empathy, but I can promise you she also has nothing but love and respect for the US flag and what it stands for.

“The same applies for the lawsuit against US Soccer. She doesn’t thrive off controversy, but sometimes enough is enough. If Megan is not satisfied, she has the right to protest. What she is trying to do is not about being outspoken or controversial. She’s asking for respect. That’s a pretty basic ask, right? And in the context of the legal proceedings against US Soccer she, and the rest of the squad, want to be compensated fairly.”

Rapinoe eventually chose to stand for the anthem to avoid punishment, but she refused to sing it at the Women’s World Cup telling Yahoo Sports back in May that her silence during ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ might prove indefinite.

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 18:  Megan Rapinoe #15 kneels during the National Anthem prior to the match between the United States and the Netherlands at Georgia Dome on September 18, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Rapinoe kneels during the national anthem (Credit: Getty Images)

“I'll probably never put my hand over my heart," she revealed to us. “I'll probably never sing the national anthem again. I felt like the statement from US Soccer, and then the rule [on the punishment for kneeling] they made without ever talking to me, that was the same as what the NFL was doing – just to not have the conversation, to try to just stop me from doing what I’m doing instead of at least having a conversation, and trying to figure out a [solution] that makes sense for everyone.”

From first to last whistle in France, though, Rapinoe did her talking with her feet. She won the player of the tournament award, got a stand-out brace in a pivotal quarter-final win over France in Paris and serenely scored a penalty in the USWNT’s victory over Netherlands in the final – a goal that also ensured she shared the Golden Boot with team-mate Morgan and England’s Ellen White.

“It was a wild month,” smiles Rapinoe. “Winning was our only aim, nothing less, but it was probably more than just a win. The crowd at the end, chanting ‘equal pay’ over and over and over was amazing. It shows you there is love in the world. And we proved we aren’t just female athletes, but these strong women with a message that anyone can relate to in or outside of sport.”

TOPSHOT - USA women's soccer player Megan Rapinoe holds the trophy in front of the City Hall after  a ticker tape parade for the women's World Cup champions on July 10, 2019 in New York. - Amid chants of "equal pay," "USA" and streams of confetti, the World Cup-winning US women's soccer team was feted by tens of thousands of adoring fans with a ticker-tape parade in New York on Wednesday. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Rapinoe in front of the City Hall (Credit: Getty Images)

Rapinoe is now a global sensation – although in some senses a parent’s nightmare, too, because young US girls suddenly feel compelled to dye their hair pink. And even though she will probably retire before the 2023 Women’s World Cup, Rapinoe is likely to remain a prominent voice in football for many years to come.

“Megan has started a new, pink 99rs-style club – the 19s,” says Lindsay, who herself climbed Kilimanajro in 2017 to play in the highest-altitude football match to promote gender equality in football. “Now just think what she can do after she retires, when she’s got time to focus solely on changing society.

“Megan 1.0 had blonde hair and kneeled during the national anthem. Megan 2.0 had pink hair and took on Trump, equal pay and won a World Cup. Megan 3.0 will either have blue-ish green hair or maybe go full-circle and return to her natural brown.

“I don’t think she’ll go into coaching next, but she will stay within the football community when the time finally comes to stop playing. I doubt she’ll want to be president of US Soccer or FIFA. That’s not her bag. She’s perhaps more likely to work around the politics or even fashion of football. Her level of popularity and pull right now is frankly ‘L-O-L’. It’s pretty freaking funny, so anything is possible.”

For now, Rapinoe continues to play at Reign FC in Seattle, the club she’s represented since 2013. She remains coy on life after football, but did hint at a much-rumoured move to Barcelona before she finally hangs up her boots.

“Barcelona plays beautiful football,” she says. “Maybe by the end of my career I’ll get over there, but I don’t know when that will be. I am just thinking about 2020. It’s a big year, what with an election. I want to get involved on someone’s campaign. And then there are the Olympics, that’s a special tournament.”

Rapinoe has her sights set on gold next summer in Tokyo, so perhaps that will be her next hair colour. But one thing’s for sure, she’ll be steering clear of ‘Trump grey’ as her next choice.

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