REDDING – U.S. standout Megan Rapinoe no longer plays soccer in the shadows, on fields tucked between rivers and streams and the lush, rolling hills of her hometown. Though a major celebrity in this Sacramento Valley city for a decade or more, with her exceptional skills apparent since her early teens, she is enjoying the more recent burst of fame generated by those recurring, emotion-stained images from the 2011 World Cup.
For those who might have forgotten – and women's soccer routinely is ignored until the calendar assists with an Olympics or another World Cup – Rapinoe is the USA's 5-foot-7, 133-pound package of dynamite. She is the midfielder with the distinctive bottle-blonde short hair, the deceptively long, lean physique and the wild streak that makes her exceedingly dangerous to opponents.
She can strike from anywhere. She will say what she thinks.
In the tense, waning seconds of the Cup quarterfinals last July against Brazil, it was Rapinoe who delivered the cross to Abby Wambach, setting up the tying goal before the U.S. team won on penalty kicks and introducing herself to many in the viewing audience – to those baseball, basketball and football traditionalists – back home.
A year later she's back, preparing for her first Olympics. She's still not a wallflower. While anticipating extensive media coverage for the women's opener July 25 in Glasgow, Scotland, Rapinoe last week confirmed what most of her friends and family have long known: that she is gay.
"It's sort of stating the obvious," she said after revealing her sexuality in the latest edition of Out magazine, "but I felt it was important. I want people to know who I am, and that I'm proud of who I am. I'd like to think we're in a time now where everyone is much more accepting."
Based on the numbers alone, her decision took courage. There are plenty of prominent gay athletes in amateur and professional sports, but few who are willing to openly acknowledge their homosexuality. Rapinoe, 27, insists she's ready for the reaction – it's all been positive thus far, she said – and besides, she's no stranger to warm climates. Redding is broiling on an off-day.
"Part of what makes Megan so wonderful, and why people are drawn to her, is that she's independent," said Megan's twin sister, Rachael. "She's definitely her own person, and I think she wanted to pave the way for other elite athletes."
Elk Grove roots
The youngest of Jim and Denise Rapinoe's five children grew up on a 3-acre spread about 10 miles from downtown Redding. According to Denise, a waitress at Jack's Grill for the past 24 years, the girls were all about sports, all the time.
To reduce the drive time to basketball games, track meets and school activities as the twins neared their teens, the Rapinoes moved into a suburban, three-bedroom home closer to town. But soccer was an entirely different matter. Soccer sucked up gasoline like a 1980s SUV.
For three consecutive years – every Tuesday – Denise picked the girls up from Redding's Foothill High School and made the 2 1/2-hour commute down Interstate 5 so they could compete for the elite club team Elk Grove Pride.
"They would do their homework in the car," Denise recalled, with a chuckle, "but there would be occasional grumbling. Remember, this was before computers and cellphones became so big. Then when we got there, they never wanted to leave. We wouldn't get home until 11 o'clock."
Under longtime Sacramento-area coach Danny Cruz, the twins quickly emerged as major prospects, with complementary skills.
"Rachael would run you over, back up, then run you over again," Cruz said. "Megan was creative, crafty, doing stuff you just didn't see 16-year-olds doing. She knew how to beat a player, get around a player. During games they were great together, intuitively playing off each other. Before games and during warmups they would yell at each other, screaming, 'Why didn't you toss me the ball? Why did you do that?' It was hilarious."
Their club success led to scholarship offers from several major college programs, including Santa Clara, UCLA and North Carolina. Partly because of their affinity for smaller towns, they attended NCAA champion University of Portland as a package deal. The bond between the sisters extends further still: both tore their left anterior cruciate ligaments in college, twice.
Megan, who was hurt during her sophomore and junior seasons, missed out on the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics.
"That was really hard," she said recently, during a conversation in the dining room of her family home, "but there was no sense feeling sorry for myself. I still had a long time left to play at Portland, and the league (the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer) came back just in time for me to graduate and transition to the national team."
Rapinoe's sense of timing was exquisite, in fact. On a national team last summer that included Elk Grove's Stephanie Cox, Rapinoe, a reserve until the finale against Japan, became a fixture on the nightly highlights. Partly it was the hair, that spiked style and bleach-blond tone. Partly it was her engaging personality; she knows how to deliver a sound bite. But mostly it was her creativity and superb footwork, and that infectious, ferocious demeanor epitomized during the spectacular, tournament-saving sequence with Wambach.
"I was at a pub in London," said Rachael, "and there were about three of us watching the game (USA-Brazil). When Abby scored (on a header), I screamed and jumped into the arms of some guy sitting next to me. We just looked at each other. Then we introduced ourselves. It was the greatest soccer moment I ever witnessed."
A star comes home
The Rapinoes don't plan to miss any of the action later this month in Scotland and England, and by all counts, there will be many of them in the stands. Denise and Jim, an independent contractor, share their home with Jim's father, John. Denise's 11-year-old nephew, Austin, also lives with the family.
"Four generations under one roof!" said Denise, beaming.
Right now, though, Megan is the star. After a lively conversation that included her parents and grandfather, and was accented by Denise's considerable cooking talents – with sausage-and-pepper sandwiches served on white rolls – the younger of the twins (by 11 minutes) eased over to the dining room table while everyone else tactfully departed.
Rapinoe is home for only a few days. A final training session with the national team awaits.
Asked about being moved into coach Pia Sundhage's starting lineup, she grinned and leaned forward, visibly pleased. The competition is intense, with expectations for the Games heightened by the most recent World Cup and the presence of veterans Wambach, Alex Morgan, Amy Rodriguez, Shannon Boxx and goalie Hope Solo, among others.
"Last summer was unbelievable, incredible," said Rapinoe. "The venues it was Europe. The crowds were great, and not just for the biggest team. But this will be my (first) Olympics, so obviously it's extremely exciting."
The folks in Redding don't disagree. All eyes will be on Rapinoe, who is regarded warmly in the community. Residents talk about her humility and friendliness during chance meetings at stores and restaurants. She earns bonus points for working out at the downtown YMCA instead of pricey fitness centers during visits. And while the reaction to her recent disclosure about her sexuality remains unclear, she is hopeful that some things won't change.
At Jack's Grill, for instance, Rapinoe is still the beloved Megan. The wall behind the bar features a large banner promoting women's soccer and the upcoming Olympics. A poster of Rapinoe preparing to strike a ball is prominently displayed. While Denise tended to a handful of customers late one recent afternoon, co-owner/bartender Mike Woodrum nodded toward the Giants-Nationals game showing on the flat-screen television.
"I can't say Megan is my daughter," said Woodrum, "but she's family. We pre-empt the Giants for her."