Megan Rapinoe’s presidential honor highlights role as team player

Megan Rapinoe was having lunch with the rest of the women’s national soccer team when her phone buzzed. It was the White House, the caller ID said.

Rapinoe giggled at what she thought was a prank before showing the phone to teammate Kelley O’Hara.

“You’ll probably have to save that,” O’Hara guessed.

It may have been the most important endorsement of O’Hara’s career, because when Rapinoe answered after a few more rings, the voice on the other end asked her, “Please wait for the President of the United States.”

Rapinoe had been selected to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, becoming the first female soccer player and sixth female athlete to receive the award. Although Rapinoe’s achievements in the field have little to do with her receiving an award recognizing “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, to world peace, or to other significant societal, public, or private endeavors.”

That day there were other players in the cafeteria who played more games and scored more goals. There are former teammates who have won more championships.

Yet none of these women can match Rapinoe’s achievements off the field, where she knelt against racism and championed LGBTQ rights. She has campaigned against gender discrimination and for equal pay, both in the court of public opinion and in court.

She even joined her teammates to sue their boss, the US Soccer Association, a lawsuit that led to a historic revenue-sharing agreement six weeks ago, under which the men’s and women’s national teams will be compensated equally.

Standing up and speaking your mind has never been a problem for Rapinoe. Football is what she does, but it’s not who she is.

“It’s literally the meaning of life to live in your truth and be able to be who you are,” she said. “I’m seeing that right now [award] as an endorsement of all the things I stood for, not as an endorsement of myself.

“My playing career has given me the opportunity to talk about all these things that are really, really important. It’s about affirming this drive for equality and rights and freedoms for all.”

An Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion, Rapinoe will focus on her sport on Monday when the USA take on Haiti at the CONCACAF W Championship in Monterrey, Mexico. She will miss her side’s second game against Jamaica to travel to the White House for Thursday’s Medal of Freedom ceremony before returning for next week’s group game final against Mexico.

The eight-team competition will determine the region’s qualification for both the 2023 World Cup and the Paris 2024 Olympics. For Rapinoe, who turns 37 on Tuesday, the tournament likely marks the beginning of the end of her international career. In a surprise addition to this summer’s squad, she has said she would like to play at another World Cup but has said little about her plans beyond that.

However, being in the right place at the right time has been a hallmark of her 16-year career.

Once a traditional midfielder, Rapinoe turned winger following Abby Wambach’s retirement in 2015 and thrived. In the last four years he has twice set career highs for goals, won the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball at the last World Cup and won both the FIFA World Player of the Year Trophy and the Ballon d’Or in 2019.

Timing has also played a huge role in Rapinoe’s activism since her rise as one of the top players on one of the most dominant teams in global sport, as the nation she represents grapples with societal issues such as gay rights, racism, gender equality fights White supremacy and abortion.

Many of these causes needed an outspoken advocate, and Rapinoe filled that void.

“I knew it was my calling or my path,” she said. “I was exactly where I should be. Whenever you walk in your truth like that, whenever you show up for the right things, I think good things happen.”

“Because I’m an athlete and play on the US women’s national team,” she added, “I’ve been able to reach out to different people than without the US women’s national team.”

Using this platform to rally support for social justice is a tradition for the national team that stretches back to its beginnings with Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. When Rapinoe got her call from the president, she was quick to credit the team with the honor, a nod that brought captain Becky Sauerbrunn to tears on Sunday.

“It’s quite akin to Pinoe getting one of the greatest prizes of all time and then immediately saying it’s a team prize,” Sauerbrunn said, wiping tears with the sleeve of her warm-up jacket. “That’s just how she is. This team has always had a legacy of fighting for things off the field, to make society better than it is. And unfortunately there will always be things we will fight for.

“I’ve known her since I was 15 and she’s always been someone with such a presence and so smart and so outgoing and so open-hearted. She’s just so brave. And I think she made everyone around her brave. The fact that she got this award, yes, that’s a testament to the team. But she’s also such an incredible person.”

President Biden will present her with a medal at the White House on Thursday to prove it. Megan Rapinoe’s presidential honor highlights role as team player

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