The Sportspersonal Touch: Megan Rapinoe's Moving Gesture During World Cup

SI's Grant Wahl reflects on his relationship with Megan Rapinoe and looks back on the touching moment during the World Cup that left him speechless.
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As a rule I don’t reveal the contents of Twitter messages I get from the people I cover. But I don’t think Megan Rapinoe would mind if I shared a few tidbits I excavated as SI honors her as the 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. One of the main topics of our Twitter DMs has been sushi recommendations, whether the year was 2011 (when she visited New York City after the World Cup and ate at Koi) or ’15 (Seattle’s Sushi Kashiba).

Following an interview in 2012, I mentioned that one of her friends had said that gay rights were important to her. Rapinoe was just about to come out publicly in Out magazine, so yes, they were. She told me, “There’s something to be said for saying, ‘This is who I am, and I’m proud of it.’ The more people who do come out, the more, I guess, normal it becomes.” (Imagine wondering in 2019 if Rapinoe had any opinions on gay rights!)

In September 2016, after she had taken a knee during the anthem at an NWSL game to support Colin Kaepernick’s protest over police brutality against black Americans, I asked her if she planned to kneel at the next USWNT game. “Yes I plan to consider this for the foreseeable future.” Which she did (at least until U.S. Soccer passed a rule forbidding it).

I wouldn’t say that Megan and I are friends, but friendly, rather. She knows I will be critical of her when I feel that’s deserved. For example, I questioned her performance during the 2016 Olympics. There’s no denying, though, that she’s a reporter’s dream. Last year I asked her what she thought about FIFA’s modest increase in Women’s World Cup prize money, even as the gap between the men’s and women’s purses had grown wider. “I think they’re probably looking for pats on the back,” Rapinoe said, “and they’re not getting any from here.”

Before the U.S. took on host France in this year’s World Cup quarterfinal, I asked her to describe what she anticipated. She smiled and replied she was hoping for “a total s---show circus.”

Something else happened before the France-USA game, a gesture that left me speechless. A few minutes after Rapinoe responded to President Trump’s call-out tweet in her press conference, I was asked to stay behind after the other journalists had left. Eighteen days earlier my mother, Helen, had passed away at 87. I had just written about my last conversation with her—it was mostly about the USWNT, which represented to her a level of excellence, confidence, and commitment to a shared goal that she had never quite seen in other teams she cheered for.

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I wrote that Rapinoe was Mom’s favorite player for her personality, her skill and her activism. After the press conference Rapinoe presented me with a U.S. jersey with her number 15 and HELEN WAHL on the back. I lost it.

In the midst of a firestorm, at one of the most important points of her career, Rapinoe showed profound empathy and humanity—and never lost her focus. The next day she scored both goals in a historic 2–1 U.S. victory. Nine days after that, she was raising another World Cup.