I have always been obsessed with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team. (See my elementary school diaries for proof.) So naturally, I love World Cup season. (If the men’s tournament isn’t called “the Men’s World Cup,” I refuse to call the women’s tournament “the Women’s World Cup.”) And the highlight of this 2019 World Cup season? None other than Megan freakin’ Rapinoe.
MEGAN RAPINOE NOW AND FOREVER MY QUEEN
— Katie Nolan (@katienolan) June 24, 2019
Rapinoe, one of the team’s captains, is outspoken about her politics. She was the first non-football player to join Colin Kaepernick’s protest of kneeling during the national anthem, expressing solidarity by explaining she knows “what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” and that “it’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this.” Rapinoe is also one of “the team’s clearest voices in demanding gender equality,” as this fantastic Sports Illustrated profile lays out, calling U.S. soccer out for institutionalized gender discrimination. And, in a recent viral tweet, when asked if she would go to the White House after the World Cup, Rapinoe responded, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.”
“Rapinoe is just a person unafraid to express the good, bad and unflinchingly ugly in our diverse and complicated country, and that allows her to be a mirror. The way you react to Rapinoe reflects an image of America. It can be depressing to see, but at least it is true. This is the point of her audacity, of her declaration that she is a ‘walking protest.’ She forces you to care,” writes Jerry Brewer in a powerful essay in The Washington Post.
But wait, why am I writing about Rapinoe, who is not Jewish, on a site for Jewish millennials? Well, folks, there’s always a Jewish angle.
Meet Rapinoe’s partner, Sue Bird.
Sue Bird is an Israeli-American basketball player. She was born in Syosset, Long Island, to a Jewish dad and Protestant mom, and, fun fact, went to high school with Natalie Portman!!
On growing up, Bird says, “I did Christmas stuff just as much as I did Hanukkah stuff. I didn’t go to church, I didn’t go to temple, I wasn’t baptized, I didn’t have a bat mitzvah or anything like that, but I still had doses of both religions. It was kind of cool, I got the best of both worlds. I got to celebrate Easter with one side of the family, and then we’d have Passover dinner on the other side. I don’t necessarily identify one way or the other, I have both inside of me,” she explained about her interfaith family.
She became an Israeli citizen in 2006, a decision that was “very much basketball motivated.” This is because teams in Europe can only have two Americans on them — so if she can play as an Israeli, rather than an American, it’s advantageous to her.
“With my father being Jewish and still having relatives in Israel, it was an easy connection. When I tell this to people outside of basketball circles, it seems a little odd. But in our world, it’s like very normal. So that’s how it all came about. It was cool, because what I found was in this effort to create an opportunity in my basketball career, I was able to learn a lot about a culture that I probably wouldn’t have tapped into otherwise,” Bird told the Washington Jewish Museum.
She went on, “Part of it was being just immersed and basically living [in Israel] for a little bit, and it was one of the best experiences. People have this kind of different image of what Israel is, and what it’s about. And yes, there are military people all over, but there’s so much more. Going to Jerusalem was an amazing experience. I’ve been two or three times. I went to the Dead Sea. I never got to go to Eilot, which I’m bummed about, because I’ve heard it’s beautiful down there. I spent most of my time in Tel Aviv. Gorgeous. There’s so much culture and I’ve made some friends that are lifelong friends. I got to get in touch with my whole dad’s side of the family, the family tree, I learned all about it. It was just an awesome experience.”
And! Guess what! Bird is a super high-achieving athlete. Shall we look at the “career highlights and awards” section of her Wikipedia page? We shall:
Just wow. Four Olympic gold medals!? Eleven-time WNBA all-star??
Anyway, I’m obsessed with Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird, both as individual athletes and as an alarmingly cute couple. Getty Images describes them as a “Power Couple.” I’m serious:
So how did this power couple form? Let’s get into it!
They met at the 2016 Olympics during a “media day.” Actually, just listen to them tell the story of how they met (around 3:00 in this video). You actually won’t be able to not smile:
Bird said that Rapinoe “sauntered” into her DMs. (Really the whole interview is so delightful!)
When Bird came out in a 2017 ESPN profile and spoke publicly for the first time about her relationship with Rapinoe, the internet kinda blew up. “They’re two legends in their sports. You have one of the highest profile and best female soccer players in the history of the U.S., and one of the highest profile and best female basketball players, together,” Cyd Zeigler, founder of OutSports.com, told the Seattle Times. “It’s not the impact within their leagues [that’s most noteworthy], it’s the courage they inspire in those kids who’ve been told they’re straight all their lives and are still trying to find their way.”
In 2018, Bird and Rapinoe made history as the first gay couple on the cover (and in) ESPN‘s Body Issue.
“Ten years from now, we’ll still be talked about as the first gay couple that ESPN had in The Body Issue. You might not realize, in the moment, the impact that something like that can have. Every now and then, when you talk to people and hear the reactions, maybe we helped somebody. But, really, with anything, it’s always about breaking down that first barrier and then have it be the norm — and I think you want that in any walk of life,” Bird told AdWeek.
Besides making history, they just seem to be a great couple. Rapinoe is more outspoken, while Bird is quieter, but they balance each other out. “She just has this way of expressing her opinion: She doesn’t shut anybody off when she speaks. I could probably work on that a little,” Rapinoe said of Bird in a 2017 profile. “I joke she is my No. 1 go-to-for-advice person. She’s just so level-headed.”
Indeed, Bird has become her support system. Rapinoe “now leans on her partner, WNBA star and four-time Olympic champion Sue Bird, whom she began dating in 2016, one of the most turbulent periods in Rapinoe’s life. Rapinoe copied the diet, training and sleep regimen that helped Bird extend her playing career and also found her ‘sounding board,'” Jeny Vrentas writes in the Sports Illustrated profile of Rapinoe.
In depending on each other, Bird explained, “I feel like as a professional athlete, there’s a lot of common themes in what you’re doing… It’s easy to talk to someone else who is going through the same thing or has been through it, there’s just something nice about that.”
In their ESPN interview around the Body Issue shoot, interviewer Jemele Hill asks them, “So who wins in a foot race?” I’ll just transcribe their responses:
Rapinoe: You know what, we’ve had a major ongoing conversation about this.
Bird: How long’s the race?
Rapinoe: How old are we? How long’s the race?
Hill [Interviewer]: What are the parameters?
Bird: Exactly. We’ve gone through the nitty gritty.
Hill: But you never have done it.
Rapinoe: I think you might be a little faster.
Bird: I don’t know, I think you’d beat me, right now. I think right now she’d beat me. I’m not just saying that. It pains me to say it, actually. I think, right now, she’d beat me.
Need some more cuteness? Bird hosted “Between Two Birds,” a (brilliantly named) YouTube series in 2015 where she interviewed her teammates on the Seattle Storm. It came back briefly in 2018 (and reportedly is coming back for a third season this year!!), and Rapinoe came on an episode. It’s absurd and hilarious and only two minutes so you should watch it:
But okay, so, what’s up with the couple now around the World Cup?
One, they both starred in that unbelievable “Dream Crazier” Nike ad (Rapinoe around 15 seconds in, and Bird around 23 seconds) narrated by Serena Williams that’s been playing constantly:
(Did you also tear up watching this??)
Two, ahead of the World Cup and around Pride Month, they collaborated to design a sweatshirt “to acknowledge the history of pride, and to end homophobic violence and bullying.” The goal is “to acknowledge, empower and educate allies of LGBTQ youth of color.”
Bird is currently not playing in the WNBA due to a knee injury, but she did not travel to France for the World Cup because, well, she’s still on her team. If USWNT does make the final, she told the Associated Press, “The minute the schedule came out I looked at it immediately and we have a week off of games. So I can go to France [for the final] and make it back and not miss a day of practice. I may have to log those miles, we’ll see.” However, she’s obviously sporting a Rapinoe jersey from the bench:
— Seattle Storm (@seattlestorm) June 22, 2019
And, Bird recently traveled home to Syosset, where she posted a picture of bagels spelling out her name. “Home is where the bagel is,” she wrote. (If you didn’t love Sue Bird already, that has to solidify it!! Home is where the bagel is!!)
All in all:
Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe will rule the world.
— Diana Taurasi’s Bun (@DT3sBun) June 24, 2019
Image of Sue Bird in header by Tom Pennington/Getty Images and of Megan Rapinoe by Maddie Meyer – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images