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How country girl Megan Rapinoe came to rule U.S. soccer

Photograph by Mike McGregor

Photograph by Mike McGregor

Growing up in rural Palo Cedro, near Redding, California, Megan Rapinoe had a Tom Sawyer-esque childhood. One of six kids, she and the rest of the brood spent their time outside, roaming the land: They caught crawfish in the creek and played “house” in the chicken coop. (“It was disgusting, full of chicken poop, but you could kind of climb in there, and we loved it.”) “My mom has this wicked whistle she’d use whenever she wanted us to come inside,” says Rapinoe. “She puts her pinkies in her mouth—you can just hear it forever. That was our call home.”

The kid from the country didn’t take the conventional U.S. route to the top. “A lot of people got to this team through the same structure: You play club, ODP, nationals. Mine was a little different,” says Rapinoe. “I didn’t do state team. Well, I did it for one year, but it was four hours away, so we were like, uh, it’s too much.” Club practices with Elk Grove United were also a hike, two and half hours away, so she often just played at home with her twin sister, Rachel. They didn’t play only soccer. They were as likely to play one-on-one basketball (“epic duels”) or one-on-one football (“basically just punt returns—she’d kick, I’d run, I’d kick, she’d run.”) Rapinoe credits the atypical route with shaping her as a player—“I was never told what I should be doing, I just played how I played.” And when she was at club practice, her coaches, she says, encouraged her “to be really creative, to try things.”

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That creativity and country-grown spirit is visible on the field. On July 4 weekend, during the 2011 World Cup, the midfielder with the Tilda Swinton–inspired haircut introduced herself to the world when she roped in a goal against Colombia, ran to the corner flag, grabbed an on-field mic, gave it a tap, and belted out Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

Patriotic song notwithstanding, Rapinoe was described by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl as “the most un-American player in U.S. women’s soccer, and that’s a compliment. For decades the U.S. has thrived on strength and speed more than skill. Rapinoe is different. With a build that more closely resembles Twiggy than tigress … Rapinoe relies instead on clever dribbling, fluid movement, and visionary passing.”

A fan favorite (check out tribute videos like “Megan Rapinoe is Made of Awesome”), she cemented that status in the 122nd minute of the quarterfinal online casino against Brazil when she sent in a ridiculously perfect cross to Abby Wambach, and, as Rapinoe describes it, “that beast in the air got her head on it.” One year later, in the Olympics, the newly out midfielder—who advocates for several LGBT organizations—scored three goals and led the team with four assists. In her club career, in 2013, she scored eight goals during her months in France playing for Olympique Lyonnais. Returning to the Seattle Reign, she led the team in goals despite missing half the season. Last year, she led the team to the league final. Her goal celebrations have stayed memorable—whether launching a faux arrow or launching herself onto teammates. “Especially in a major tournament, the whole point of everything is to score a goal. If I’m scoring them, or someone else is, [celebrating] is just fun,” says Rapinoe. “I’m a pretty playful person, and you can’t be too playful on the field. So it’s my chance to let out that playfulness.”

Rapinoe’s terrain now extends far beyond the Northern California of her childhood, but Denise Rapinoe’s whistle endures: after games, once Denise spots her daughter’s platinum blonde hair moving through the crowd, out come the pinkies. “That’s how I find where she is,” says Rapinoe. “That’s how I spot her out in the crowd.” In June, when Rapinoe’s free-flowing, unpredictable style just might help the United States women capture the elusive World Cup title, she’ll once again be listening for that whistle.

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