Just one day before Megan Rapinoe and her team boarded the plane to New Zealand for the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup, the forward had an announcement to make: The 2023 season will be her last—making her fourth trip to soccer’s biggest stage her final one, Rapinoe told reporters at a pregame press conference on July 8.
“I could have never imagined where this beautiful game would have taken me,” Rapinoe said at the conference. “I feel so honored to be able to have represented this country and this federation for so many years. It’s truly been the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”
The question of retirement was something she was thinking about for “a long time”—since 2019, when the final whistle blew in Lyon, France, and marked the US team’s fourth World Cup victory. It was, she admitted, something she had been “grappling with and struggling with.”
But at the beginning of the 2023 season—and after talking with her partner, Sue Bird, about her own WNBA retirement in 2022—the answer gradually became clearer. So much so, in fact, that she opened her statement by describing her “really deep sense of peace and gratitude and excitement” about her decision.
“I wanted to do it before the World Cup; I wanted to do it on my own terms. I did want to do it in my own way, and make sure it was something that felt good for me and felt good for the people around me,” Rapinoe said at the conference. “But ultimately, it’s my career, it’s my words to say, and I wanted to make sure I had the moment to take time to say what I wanted to say.”
The agency that came with Rapinoe’s announcement is particularly fitting, since she’s spent her career giving voice to issues that go beyond the pitch. Over her 17 years representing Team USA in soccer, Rapinoe has been a vocal advocate in the fight for equal pay, LGBTQ+ rights, trans inclusion in sports, and racial equality. In 2016, she was the first white athlete and first female athlete to take a knee during the national anthem to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, according to US Soccer.
On the pitch, Rapinoe’s been just as prolific. A three-time Olympian, Rapinoe won gold in the 2012 London Games, and during Team USA’s bronze-earning match in Tokyo, she became the first US Women’s National Team (USWNT) player in history to score more than one goal in multiple Olympic games. Now, with two World Cup victories under her belt, she’s headed to her fourth competition ranking in the top 10 in USWNT history in both goals and assists.
While her role in the 2023 World Cup may be different than in previous years—she’s likely going from starter to squad player, according to Reuters—Rapinoe is focused on bringing her best to the international competition despite a recent lower leg injury. In the press conference, she described it as feeling like “a little bit of borrowed time.”
“There’s sort of no distraction at hand because I know what it’s like to lose in a World Cup final, and I certainly don’t want to do that again. The best way I can possibly go out is winning,” she said at the conference. “So it feels really easy to focus, and easy to put my all into it, and easy to be really settled and excited [about] what’s undoubtedly going to be the best World Cup we’ve ever seen.”
Leaving the sport, though, won’t be as simple: “There are certain things in the game that you just have to mourn when you walk away,” Rapinoe said. This includes huge, career-defining moments like scoring a World Cup goal in a packed stadium and smaller, everyday experiences like chatting with the team in the locker room before a match.
While Rapinoe may be hanging up her cleats at the end of the year, she knows the fight for equality in women’s sports—something she says isn’t measured solely in objective outcomes like investment dollars, ticket sales, or attendance numbers—isn’t finished.
“We have shown that we have the power to change the world in so many ways. I think we’ve seen the world change around us the more that we use our voice and create space for ourselves or other people,” Rapinoe said. “I think our ultimate mission is to just keep evolving, to keep progressing, keep throwing our ladders down and bringing as many people along with us as we possibly can…. The goal is to use this to make the world a better place.”