U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe has been in a race against time to make the Olympic team, which is expected to be announced next week. She tore her right ACL in a U.S. training session in Hawaii last December and is in camp but won’t play in Saturday’s pre-Olympic friendly against South Africa in Chicago (1 p.m. ET, FS1).
Rapinoe turned 31 on Tuesday and recently joined Manchester United’s Juan Mata as a global ambassador for StreetFootballWorld, a non-profit supporting social change through soccer. Rapinoe caught up with SI.com for a chat on a number of topics:
SI.com: Megan, you’ve been out with a knee injury since December. The Olympics start on August 3, and you are with the U.S. team in this current camp. Where are you in your recovery?
Rapinoe: Pretty close, actually. I’ve just gone back into training with my club team, the Seattle Reign. I’m basically doing everything except contact. People can’t tackle me, which is how I prefer it anyway (laughs). So I’m trying to work back in, and I feel pretty comfortable on the ball and moving around. I think I might actually be faster than I was before! I feel really good. I’m just at the tail end of the rehabilitation of feeling comfortable jumping in. I’m about seven months out, so kind of that time you start to ask yourself: Am I comfortable? Am I strong and confident? And then it’s about working yourself back in in the smartest and safest way possible.
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SI.com: What has U.S. coach Jill Ellis said to you about your chances of making this Olympic team and what it’s going to take?
Rapinoe: I think, bottom line, I have to be good enough to make the team. I have to bring something in and beat somebody else out, especially with a smaller roster for the Olympics. That’s the first thing. I think she understands I won’t be coming being the starter I was and being a 90-minute player. But if there’s some capacity I can come in off the bench and help that way and be fit and good for maybe 30 minutes or a half, I think she’s willing to work with me on that and be open to that. I have some skills that are unique to me that I think she rates, and she thinks if I’m at a certain level I can help the team in some capacity. It’s not just coming back for a friendly, it’s coming back for a major tournament.
SI.com: You hurt your knee last December on a practice field in Hawaii that several U.S. players found unacceptable. It was the same weekend as the friendly that was canceled over poor field conditions. Is there any bitterness or anger toward the federation over what happened?
Rapinoe: No. I don’t feel that. I think that maybe it made them think a little harder about where they put us. I think right when it happened the fact everyone asked me if I thought it was the turf or not—that’s unacceptable for that question to need to be asked. I think in a lot of ways, unfortunately, the lesson had to be learned at the expense of me. But there were a lot of lessons learned. It was an eye-opener for a lot of people.
I’m not bitter. I can’t say it was the only reason it happened. Maybe if I was on a perfect field it would have happened also. But maybe it wouldn’t. And that’s something we need to address going forward, and hopefully we won’t have to ask that question again.
SI.com: You’ve had this injury before, unfortunately. Has that helped with your recovery in any way?
Rapinoe: Tremendously, actually. This is the third time. It was my left knee kind of back-to-back in college. It’s helped me tremendously to know what to expect, to know what’s normal, what kind of pain is normal and what isn’t. To know what it’s like to be close to being back. Even from a mindset standpoint, it’s long. It takes forever, even with good medicine these days. The surgeons are so light with their touch, after two months you’re back walking around. For me to have that knowledge and the process being familiar to me, it’s enabled me to approach it in a more healthy way and keep myself sane. I can do my rehab and do some other things, have some creative outlets and take advantage of that and still know what I needed to do.
SI.com: When you look at this U.S. women’s national team since the World Cup, what are your impressions of what has changed and what’s similar?
Rapinoe: A lot of new faces, which is pretty cool to see. Obviously a lot of not only great players but big personalities aren’t with the team right now. I’m injured, Abby [Wambach] retired, Christie Rampone has been injured and not in camp. Shannon Boxx [retired], Lauren Holiday [retired], Amy Rodriguez [new mother], Sydney Leroux [pregnant]: Those are not only great players but big personalities.
So it’s been cool to see these last six to eight months the new players come in. And now you can see—I was in camp in Denver—they’re growing into their roles and taking on new responsibilities. Even the kind of “middle-aged” players on the team like Tobin [Heath] and Kelley [O’Hara] are taking on more responsibility, which has been pretty cool. And the team has been doing fantastic and playing well and starting to click in all facets of the game heading to Rio.
SI.com: There’s a crazy thing that no team that has ever won the Women’s World Cup has won the Olympic gold medal the following year. Do you have any idea why not? And do you think this U.S. team is capable of ending that streak?
Rapinoe: I think we are very capable of ending that streak. And I think it’s very understandable why it hasn’t happened. Because it’s really exhausting when you win the World Cup. There’s a lot that happens. A lot of good stuff, but sometimes you need to be in New York and you live in Seattle and you have to fly to the good stuff. Then you fly to the good stuff in L.A. And then there’s a photo shoot somewhere else (Editor's note: like SI!). So it’s hard. There’s a lot of attention, there’s a lot more to do, a lot of appearances. Just emotionally, as amazing as it is to win the World Cup, it’s emotionally draining in many ways. But having so many new players, that’s probably good for us not just to have more youth but just actually energy that a lot of us have spent this past year.
SI.com: The labor situation with U.S. Soccer continues. The complaint filed with the EEOC about wage discrimination compared to the men’s team got a ton of attention. It’s transcended soccer and even sports. You were one of the five players on that complaint. Where are we on that?
Rapinoe: Still in the thick of it, really. The EEOC, in terms of the complaint they handle it. And our contract, which is up at the end of the year, that still needs to be ironed out. So this recent court finding [that the CBA runs through the end of the year] can’t impact the Olympics, but it’s over in December, so we have to get a deal done. Those negotiations are still happening. Hopefully we can reach a deal that acceptable on both sides. We’d like to have it done sooner than later. It’s not optimal to have your contract run out for either side. Ideally, it would be best if we could come to an agreement soon.
SI.com: One thing we’ve seen in the Copa América and Euro 2016 TV coverage is more women being involved in the broadcasting of men’s soccer events, whether it’s Aly Wagner for Fox Sports or Kate Markgraf, Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy for ESPN. Would you be interested in doing that at some point?
Rapinoe: Hell yeah! I’m totally interested in it. I’ve always got opinions on everything. I really am interested. I think it’s very difficult and people don’t give enough credit to how hard it is to do in-game commentary. I’d have a lot of work to do, but I’d definitely be interested. I’m always interested in breaking down the game, and I’d love to see more females doing it. It’s amazing to see more companies like ESPN and Fox step out and have smart women doing this who can bring a lot to it.
SI.com: So tell me more about your global ambassador position with StreetFootballWorld. What’s it about?
Rapinoe: It’s a really cool organization that I’m psyched to work with. They’re an organization that essentially aims to make the world a better place through football, which oftentimes seems simple but isn’t. It tends to be very difficult. The cool thing they do is they work as a tool with local organizations that are already on the ground and already have intimate knowledge of the needs of the community and what really needs to happen. It’s often hard to just throw money at a problem when you don’t really know what the problem is.
So that was interesting for me. They work with all these local organizations that can actually effect change in those areas. I’m one of their ambassadors. Juan Mata is my male counterpart in this. Hopefully we can help bring them some big sponsorships to their programs and try to help them that way. Ideally, I’d like to bring the business that my sister and I have into it. We run our own clinics, but for us a big-picture goal would be to take it international and use our platform and message to team up with a local organization through StreetFootballWorld to do a clinic or series of clinics in South America or other places around the world.