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Megan Rapinoe Explains How Fiance Sue Bird Made Her a Better Athlete

Megan Rapinoe on One Life cover

A few weeks ago Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird wordlessly announced that the pair had gotten engaged via an Instagram post. Having begun their relationship back in 2016, the pair are one of the highest profle couples in sports having made international names for themselves in socceer and basketball respectively. In this excerpt from her upcoming book One Life, Rapinoe (who is the captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team) writes about the impact the relationship, which started not long after she made headlines for kneeling during the National Anthem during a game, following the lead of Colin Kaepernick.

While my career was at its lowest point, my personal life was flourishing. . . . Starting a new relationship while at the center of a huge media firestorm is the kind of make-or-break situation you don’t really plan for. On the upside, we each got a complete crash course in the other’s unvarnished self, the seriousness of what was happening plunging us into real intimacy.

On the downside, I was stressed, angry, and generally bent out of shape, and I didn’t make it easy for Sue.

She was amazing. Every time I flipped out and picked up my cell, either to fire off an ill-advised tweet or make an ill-advised phone call, she pulled me back. “Take a minute,” she’d say, “and see if it still seems like a good idea.”

One of the best parts about being with Sue during those weeks— besides falling madly in love—was that I got to piggyback on her schedule.

When Sue trained, I trained; what she ate—more vegetables, less sugar and carbs—I ate. I hadn’t been eating enough, which had impacted my ability to train and kept me hovering at 70 percent effort and engagement. Sue’s fitness and nutrition schedules not only gave me a sense of strength and stability that helped me power up to 100 percent; they also made Sue and I feel as if we were in this together.

At the beginning of the 2017 season, after six months on the new regimen, I was so fit and healthy my entire physique had changed. One look at me and it was blatantly obvious: I was stronger and leaner than before. I was mentally fit, too. By helping me with my diet and training, Sue wasn’t just giving me practical support. It was emotional, too, and during those weeks and months, I felt as if she were wrapping me up and taking care of me, nursing me back to health both physically and mentally. Sue doesn’t gush, or fuss, or make a big deal out of things, but the fact that she dived headfirst into this absolute dumpster fire of my life was an expression of such love, and tenderness, and strength all in one, that for the first time in my life, I allowed myself truly to melt into someone.

And we had fun. Sue is super witty and occasionally I’m funny, too—but wow, she made me work for the laughs. Sue’s a tough crowd, allergic to fake laughter (which I’ll settle for), so when I made a joke, 90 percent of the time she’d find it funny enough. One in ten times, however, she’d really—really—laugh at my joke, and to bank one of those was the best feeling in the world.

During those early months together, Sue was out to her friends, teammates, and family, but she wasn’t publicly out. “Hey,” said my sister sarcastically a few weeks after Sue and I started dating. “When is Sue coming out? ’Cause, you know; you’re the outtest person in the world and . . . kind of visible right now.” Sue is more private than I am, and had never felt the need to make a public announcement. But when it was clear we were firmly together, she scheduled an interview with ESPN.

For the first time, I felt something I wasn’t accustomed to feeling: vulnerable. I had been in love before, but at thirty-one, I’d never really had my heart broken. My relationship with Sue felt different. On the one hand, it had the ease and inevitability of something that feels truly right. On the other, while I was fully confident of my relationship, falling that hard for someone was new to me. I was more myself with Sue than with anyone I’d ever been with, but I also needed to be my best self—so as not to lose her. I tell her this to this day: If she ever breaks up with me, I’ll crumble to dust.

In spring 2018, with what I hoped was my worst year behind me, Sue and I did something giddy and hopeful. We had agreed to be the first gay couple to appear in ESPN the Magazine’s “Body Issue,” and now we agreed to pose naked for the cover. It was silly in some ways, a huge glossy shoot for a celebrity product that doubled as an exercise in personal branding. In spite of that, the shoot still felt meaningful: to be the first, to be out, to be proud.

We shot in Seattle. We were both used to being naked in the locker room with strangers wandering around—trainers, coaches, doctors—and neither of us was particularly self-conscious. (Some players turn their backs when they change, but it takes a lot of work to be that modest, and that wasn’t us.) We felt very comfortable with Radka Leitmeritz, the female photographer, and since we’re competitive, we got into the spirit of wanting to get the best shot without the process taking a thousand hours. The final result, in which we were shown leaping in poses that showed off all the hard work of training, was stunning. But there were shots of us touching each other lovingly, too—Sue’s hand on my shoulder, my hand on her arm—which were in some ways a much bigger deal. The whole thing was a big, splashy way of normalizing gay relationships.

Afterward, we spoke to Jemele Hill, a reporter for ESPN. She asked us how it felt to be symbols to a lot of people, and Sue talked about coming out earlier in the year. “’Cause everybody in my life knows. It was not a surprise or shock,” she said. “But that’s not the same as coming out. It really isn’t. Being around Megan, I learned that. And then after I came out, just seeing the reactions, having people come up to me directly—” I was naturally outspoken; Sue was naturally reserved—but coming out publicly had struck us in exactly the same way, as a vital form of visibility. “I think there’s just something really powerful about that.”

Excerpted from One Life by Megan Rapinoe. Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Megan Rapinoe.

RELATED | Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird Get Engaged, Signal High Point to Bleak Year

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