Megan Rapinoe couldn’t have done it better

It’s possible that no professional athlete has ever had a celebration as fitting as Megan Rapinoe’s. Head back, chin high, arms spread gently and wide – she stands ready to accept thousands of adoration as a flower welcomes sunlight. When the position was first revealed after each of Rapinoe’s goals in the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals, it felt not just natural, but eternal. Only the greatest athletes have the ability to show you in the moment, breezy and unconstructed, exactly how you will always remember them.

So when it comes time to make statues of Rapinoe, we know what they will look like. And that time is near, because on Saturday Rapinoe announced that she will retire from professional soccer at the end of this season. The 38-year-old is playing in her fourth and final World Cup with the USWNT this summer and will then return to the OL Reign to finish her NWSL career. She will leave the game as decorated as any athlete could hope to be. She has won two world championships, an Olympic gold medal and the 2019 Ballon d’Or Féminin. She’s just the seventh USWNT player to record more than 50 goals and 50 assists for the national team, and her next appearance for the team will be her 200th. Oh, she was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last July.

Conversations about women’s football often center around words like “opportunity” and “investment” and “growth”, especially as the World Cup approaches. Every four years gives American soccer fans an opportunity to see how well other countries around the world are catching up to the USWNT by injecting more money and attention into the women’s game. These are valuable conversations to have, but sometimes they sell the USWNT a little short. Yes, money and infrastructure are important ingredients in building a dominant national team, but nothing matters more than the players.

Domestic leagues and federations and international tournament entries can only buy a sport so much cultural purchase (not much). The true value of these items lies in the opportunities they provide for players who are able to push the game forward through their own individual brilliance. Rapinoe has been a professional for 14 years, and in that time she has seized every opportunity that has been put in front of her. The USWNT is not the cultural institution it is today without the years of sparkling play that Rapinoe gave it. The moments that make this team important are the ones that delivered not only meaningful wins, but enduring memories. Because of Rapinoe, you’ll never be able to think of the USWNT without her thinking of the crossthe beautiful and miraculous ball that Rapinoe whipped onto the head of Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute to save the USWNT from a disastrous quarterfinal exit at the 2011 World Cup. And because of Rapinoe, that moment is further immortalized by what she thought , when she passed the ball, which she later shared in her memoirs: “Bitch, you better be there.”

It takes a great player to deliver as often as Rapinoe has throughout her career, but what she did on the court will only account for half of her legacy. Rapinoe understood that as the women’s game grew around her efforts, it created more and more cultural space that needed to be filled. Just as Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali took advantage of the growing popularity of basketball and professional boxing to pursue their politics, Rapinoe saw the growth of women’s soccer as an opportunity to stand up for something. She helped lead the USWNT’s fight for equal pay, knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick when it was a real risk, refused to back down from her decision not to go to “the damned White House,” and advocated the inclusion of transgender people in sports. She did all this kindly and with conviction, without ever equivocating or appeasing.

Every sport has its collection of great athletes, but when Rapinoe retires she will join the upper crust of those who were both exceptional and transcendent. She will have gotten there without ever faltering, either as a player or a person. It is that natural ease that I will always remember about her. It was there when she made accurate crosses and scored goals and won the World Cup, and it remained when she fought for causes she believed in and stood up to some of the worst critics any American athlete has ever faced. She was confident in everything she did, right to the end. “It is with a really deep sense of peace and gratitude and excitement that I want to share with you that this will be my last season,” she said at the beginning of her press conference on Saturday. The effortless charm arrived a few minutes later: “I’d like to do it before the World Cup. I’ve been asked a thousand times and of course I’m not going to play in the next one. My God, that would be quite a stage.”

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