Megan Rapinoe's long road back
A few months before the 2011 Women's World Cup, Denise Rapinoe was preparing for what she thought as a run-of-the-mill video chat with her daughter, U.S. international midfielder Megan Rapinoe. She was not prepared for what she saw. Instead of the brown-haired daughter she thought she knew, what emerged on the screen was a platinum-blonde staring back at her.
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh! What have you done?' It was a little shocking," said the elder Rapinoe by telephone.
Suffice it to say, the rest of the world has embraced the look wholeheartedly. There are the multiple Twitter accounts devoted to Rapinoe's mane, not to mention the Nike T-shirts emblazoned with the player's now-trademark hairstyle. Eventually, even Denise Rapinoe became a convert. "My mom told me, 'It's the best thing you've ever done for yourself,'" said the U.S. midfielder in a telephone interview. "I was like, 'Thanks, Mom. I'll go ahead and take that as a compliment.'"
"I don't see that well now that I'm getting older," Denise added with a laugh. "But I can see [Megan] now, I can spot her."
She's not the only one. The U.S. midfielder is poised to make a huge impression on the 2012 Olympic Games. Off the field, Rapinoe is now one of the team's more recognizable players. More importantly, with forwards Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach in electric form, the U.S. women are ready to make it a three-peat of Olympic titles, and Rapinoe will be one of their prime providers.
U.S. manager Pia Sundhage has long lauded Rapinoe's unpredictability, a trait that allows the player to deliver pinpoint crosses from out wide, as well as tuck inside to play quick combinations. It explains, in part, why Rapinoe is in the lineup while former mainstay Heather O'Reilly is now fighting to reclaim her spot on the right side of midfield.
"I think one of Pia's biggest philosophies on soccer is allowing us the creativity to make decisions on the field, to kind of let us feel the game, play a free-flowing, attacking, creative style," Rapinoe said. "I think that definitely suits me. I think she's allowed me to blossom under that, and really grow in that creative sense, while still making sure I know my defensive responsibilities as well. But I think she's more focused on letting that creativity come out."
But like many creative players, there are moments when the impulse to try the unexpected can test the patience of teammates, especially forwards dependent on midfielders to find them in good spots.
"Megan, she's one of the players on our team that has the ability to change the game," said Wambach during a conference call with reporters. "She can come on and be the best player on the field. Her biggest challenge is probably herself. I think she's done such a great job this last year, since the World Cup, of working hard and getting back into the starting lineup and fighting her own demons when it comes to the game of soccer. When she's 100 percent focused on the game, 100 percent involved, she plays better soccer. When she keeps the ball and shares the ball, that is when Megan Rapinoe is at her best."
It doesn't take much effort to recall such a moment. With time winding down in last summer's World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil, the U.S. was down a player and a goal. Then Rapinoe delivered a GPS-guided cross that found Wambach at the back post to nod home an equalizer that energized the U.S. and crushed the soul of the Samba Queens. The U.S. ultimately prevailed on penalties, a win that catapulted them to the final.
Yet Rapinoe is the first to admit that the past year has been littered with its share of challenges. It's easy to forget that just before the World Cup she lost her starting job to Lauren Cheney. And while Rapinoe is quick to laud her teammate's attacking ability and stellar play, she doesn't try to disguise the pain she felt at losing her spot so close to the start of her first major tournament.
"I think you have a choice in terms of the way you want to go about [handling the benching]," Rapinoe said. "I definitely had some time to myself where I just let myself be pissed and feel that. I don't think I can deny that I felt that. But I also knew that I was going to get time and that I was going to get my chance, and to just be ready for those moments. There's nothing worse than proving the coach right in dropping you. And in the end, I think I was able to prove the coach wrong and get back in the starting lineup and help the team do as well as we did."
There have been physical challenges as well. A nagging MCL injury sustained in November blunted Rapinoe's progress, making it difficult to carry forward the momentum she generated in Germany. As a consequence, she was relegated to more of a super-sub role for much of 2012.
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"I wasn't fit, I wasn't right, I wasn't in good form," Rapinoe said. "Finally, a couple of months ago, I was able to just really dig into training and I found my confidence again. It's especially good to be back in the starting lineup. Any athlete doesn't want to be on the bench, and I'm happy to be contributing."
Indeed, Rapinoe has started the past four games for the U.S., with Wambach lauding her play during the team's 2-1 win over Canada at the end of June.
But if Rapinoe's road to get back in the starting lineup was long, her journey to become a national team player was even longer. Literally. Rapinoe grew up in Redding, Calif., a town of almost 90,000 in the Shasta Cascade region at the northern end of the state. She spent most of her youth soccer career playing on teams coached by her father, Jim, a construction contractor. But when high school hit, she and twin sister Rachael decided to play their club soccer for Elk Grove United, a team based just south of Sacramento. That meant piling into the family van on Tuesdays to head for practice and enduring the 2½-hour drive each way on I-5, then doing it all over again on the weekend.
"They'd do their homework in the car, whatever they had to do," recalled Denise, who still works as a waitress at Jack's Grill, a local eatery in Redding. "They'd do the practice and then we'd head home. We'd usually get home about 11, 11:30 at night.
"We only did that one day a week, except in the summer. But the weekends, we were gone. It worked out with my schedule, and I didn't work Fridays and Saturdays anymore. We just did it. We went through three vans during that time, from junior high through high school. We just racked up the miles."
So instead of taking vacations, the family went to soccer tournaments. Denise is the first to admit that the commitment is "not for everyone," but it paid off in the form of athletic scholarships to the University of Portland for both Megan and Rachael. Megan helped the Pilots win a national championship in 2005 and eventually parleyed her collegiate performances into a spot with the U.S. national team, this despite enduring two separate ACL injuries that kept her from competing at the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.
Now Rapinoe has become an inspiration, and not just because of her playing ability or her hairstyle. It was during her time in college that Rapinoe came to the realization that she was gay, but it was only last month, in an interview with Out Magazine, that she decided to make her sexual orientation public. She later elaborated on her decision to ESPN.com, in a blog, as well as in a separate interview.
"For me, it's important to come out," she said. "There's so much talk about it, it's such a hot-button issue. I'm very proud of who I am, and I think that I'm on a certain platform to be able to stand up and be just who I am. I think people look up to us. And if they don't look up to us, they follow us and support us. We're much more scrutinized as a team now than we have been in a long time, and I just felt like this is who I am and I'm very proud of who I am and it's important to stand up."
Perhaps it's a sign of the times that Rapinoe said she hasn't experienced any negative reaction to her announcement, at least so far. But she's ready either way. "I don't think I'll see that much of a backlash, and if I do, well, that's OK," she said. "It's a chance to educate people. And my whole life, it's been widely accepted. It's been amazing for me, and not a story that everything single [gay] person can tell. There are some people who have struggled with it, and to have someone like me to look up to, or to see a person that had the courage to do that, is a pretty cool thing. My family is very supportive of me and loves me for who I am, and you can't ask for anything more than that."
That self-assuredness has now spread to Rapinoe's professional life. All that's left is to take that last step and claim a title like the one the U.S. came so close to winning last summer.
"I've never won a major championship, but I know what it feels like to be just that close," she said. "I definitely don't want to feel that again."
With Rapinoe, among others, approaching peak form, the Americans stand a good chance of winning gold. And if they do, when the celebrations begin, she'll be easy to spot.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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