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'One Life': Soccer Player Megan Rapinoe On Sports, Being Gay And Taking A Stand

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: You could go on for a while before you'd run out of things to say about Megan Rapinoe's victories as an athlete. Sports Illustrated named her Sportsperson of the Year last year - same year she led the U.S. women's national soccer team to claim a fourth World Cup title.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The United States of America are crowned champions of the world.

KELLY: Well, Rapinoe has a new book out titled "One Life." And yeah, it's about soccer. But on the very first page, she writes, while I have your attention, I also want to discuss issues that have nothing to do with sports. Rapinoe has made headlines for taking a stand on gay rights and women's rights, for taking a knee to support Black Americans.

Megan Rapinoe, welcome.

MEGAN RAPINOE: Oh, thank you for having me.

KELLY: Let's start at the beginning. You write that you were this quiet kid, which, I guess, anybody who knows you might (laughter) already have cause to question. But you started out this quiet kid, youngest of six. Just tell me about the town where you grew up. This was Northern California.

RAPINOE: Yeah, so I grew up in Redding, Calif., which is a small, pretty conservative town in Northern California. I was quiet and sensitive, and I felt a lot as a kid. And I was sweet, but then I was also, like, a wild child. My grandfather famously nicknamed me Ma Barker after a female, like, mob boss serial killer.

KELLY: (Laughter).

RAPINOE: So I don't know if I would go that far, but I'm rambunctious and chill at the same time.

KELLY: And in terms of when soccer came into your life - I'll just ask this straight because I gather false modesty isn't your thing. It was clear from when you were really young and first kicking a ball around that you had the potential to be superb.

RAPINOE: Yeah, I think so. I'm one of six, but I'm also a twin. And so, I think, from the time we were 5 or 6 years old, our first team, my parents were like, oh, my God, they're better - (laughter) they're better than everyone. What's happening out here? It was kind of funny. I never felt I was the best one, and I don't think my sister ever felt that either. And I think it was because we just judged each other against ourselves, so it was sort of normal what we were doing. But I think to all of the other parents, it was like, oh, gosh, these girls are something.

KELLY: I was so struck by your observation that youth soccer in America has become so hyperorganized - kids pressured to play year-round and commit to a schedule that rules out doing anything else. Do you think it's gotten worse, just in the 20 years since you were playing high-school soccer?

RAPINOE: Oh, exponentially worse - it's almost a bill of goods being sold in a way in the sense that if you play on this club team and if you go to this tournament and if you get this special training and if you pay this much for personalized training and all of these things, the sort of implication is that you will make it to the highest level, which we all know is just categorically untrue. You can't pay or train your way into being an elite athlete. I say all the time, I was born with so much of the talent that I have. And, of course, it's what you do with it from there. But I feel bad for the parents but mostly for the kids, who - like I said, 99% of them are not going to play professional sports. But that's not really the most special part of sports. You - I think kids' experience is being ruined by the pressure and the competitiveness where they can't actually just play sports for fun and play sports to be healthy and move their bodies and be active and learn teamwork and confidence and problem-solving and conflict management - all of those things. So it's kind of unfortunate, to be honest. I don't know really what the solution is, but I don't really like the way that it's going.

KELLY: One of the moments that made me smile in the book is your account of how you realized that you are gay. You write that you were 18, and you wondered, why did nobody in my family tell me? Like, come on, guys, (laughter) you must have known this. You could have helped me out here.

RAPINOE: It's unforgivable.

KELLY: (Laughter).

RAPINOE: They know it. I'll never forgive them for it. It was clear as day. I remember almost chuckling to myself, like, how did you miss this? This is the most obvious thing. It was an immediate sort of click into place that just was a relief but also a whole new frontier of just excitement and self-confidence and like, oh, wow, this is what they're talking about. This is feeling comfortable within yourself.

KELLY: The U.S. women's team has millions more viewers than the men's. You have more wins. You get paid less, a situation that I - I don't know - I'm guessing is going to sound vaguely familiar to women in other professions listening to us right now. What advice do you have, having gone to court to try to change this?

RAPINOE: First of all, believe in your gut always. You'll be gaslit. You'll be manipulated. You'll be told you're crazy. You'll be told it's not that bad. You'll be told you don't have the facts. You'll be told, you know, market realities are such that you shouldn't get paid this much. You'll be told all of those things. But really, like, trust that gut feeling. I think we all kind of know. You have that sort of spidey sense. I would also say, for most women, if you're elite in your field or if you're higher up in your field, you're either one of one or you're one of very few. And so try to seek out other women, whether that's in organizations or online or social media or whatever it may be. Try to find that support group, so you can share stories and gain that confidence in each other.

KELLY: Well, let's go straight to this moment that we're in now. We have a new president-elect, Joe Biden, preaching unity. Can you see a world where MAGA-hat-wearing Trump voters embrace a gay soccer star with pink hair?

RAPINOE: I think we need to be careful when we talk about unity. Unity is going to come after acknowledgment and responsibility is taken and accountability for the harm that has been done. I think, you know, we've been hearing a lot of, let's reach across the aisle. And, you know, you go first. You don't get to rain down the kind of terror and violence and vitriol and hate speech that not only Donald Trump but the Republican Party and a lot of Donald Trump supporters have rained down on the rest of us for all of these years and then ask for us to put our hand out first. That's not how that's going to go. I love the idea of unity. I love the idea of people being able to speak to each other, but it's not going to come without reconciliation. It's not going to come without a reckoning and acknowledgement of all the harm and pain that has been done up until this point.

KELLY: Last thing - since you wrote the book, you got engaged to your longtime girlfriend, Sue Bird. She's also a star athlete in women's basketball. First of all, congratulations. That's great.

RAPINOE: Thank you.

KELLY: Second, you know, what would you say to 10-year-old Megan about what life is like, could be like at 35?

RAPINOE: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I don't think she would believe it.

(LAUGHTER)

RAPINOE: I would tell her, you're gay, you know?

KELLY: (Laughter).

RAPINOE: That would be the first thing. Hey, by the way, this is really obvious, but clearly...

KELLY: Let me save you...

RAPINOE: You're not seeing it.

KELLY: Yeah, let me save you a decade here of trying to figure this out.

RAPINOE: Yeah, let me save you a decade. You know, I think I would say that, you know, life is going to be full of really good things and really hard things. And you're going to grow a lot, and you're going to learn so much all the time - and so just, like, kind of leaning into the nitty gritty of life and just to enjoy every moment. I've been able to do some really, truly special and amazing, incredible things in my life. And I try not to take any of them for granted.

KELLY: Well, I can't wait to see what you do next.

Thank you so much.

RAPINOE: Thank you. Thank you.

KELLY: That is soccer superstar, social advocate and now author Megan Rapinoe. Her book is called "One Life." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.