Megan Rapinoe and three of her 2019 U.S. Women’s National Soccer teammates are the subjects of an inspirational new middle-grade book that follows them from their starts in the sport through their rise to global fame — and which also discusses Rapinoe’s coming out and its positive impact on her life.
On the Field with... Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Mallory Pugh, by Matt Christopher, is a new volume in publisher Little, Brown and Company’s leading middle-grade “On the Field with” sports series. Christopher, a prolific and popular sports writer for children, in fact died in 1997, but Little, Brown continues (with permission of his estate) to release books under his name.
Whoever is currently writing as Christopher still knows how to deliver a rousing tale, though, jumping right into the action from the start. “Let me just bomb this from the mid stripe. What the heck...” it begins, sharing Carli Lloyd’s thought “a split second before she launched the most famous kick in the history of women’s soccer.” Detailed but clear retellings of this and other key moments across years of championship tournaments, woven with recollections from the players and sportscasters, make reading the book almost (but not quite!) as exciting as being at the actual games.
There’s enough blow-by-blow narration to satisfy true players and fans, but the book is at heart a series of biographical sketches. The action is interwoven with stories about how the players started in the sport as children, their relationships with siblings and parents, their paths through youth leagues and college to the national team, and the grueling workouts, painful injuries, and other setbacks that are part of competition at an elite level. We see young women taking charge of their futures, forming friendships, and building a team. We read not only of victories, but also of personal and team defeats, as well as the resilience to keep going afterwards. Each of the titular players gets her own section, with several chapters in each, but each section also shows how they worked together to bring Team USA its 2019 World Cup championship.
Notably for a middle-grade biography, one chapter in the section on Rapinoe is titled “Out and Proud,” and discusses her coming out as gay. (“Gay,” not “lesbian,” is the term Rapinoe used in her 2012 Out magazine interview, where she first came out in public, and the book follows her usage.) We learn that she didn’t know she was gay until college; that she told her twin sister Rachael right after Rachael had told Megan that she, too, was gay; and that they also told their family and closest friends. Otherwise, though, they chose “to keep their private life private.” Yet hiding this was “exhausting,” and with the urging of teammate Lori Lindsay, Rapinoe decided to go big, coming out just days before the 2012 Summer Olympics, when the media was on the athletes. Yet Rapinoe “wasn’t doing it just for herself, but for anyone who struggled with their identity. She wanted to give them a voice,” we read. She also hoped that “straight people who already knew her and who knew of her as a soccer player would realize that gay people were just that: people.”
After coming out, the book says, Rapinoe felt freer, “And that freedom helped her play her best in the Olympics.”
Let’s just savor that line for a moment. How awesome it is that a young person today can pick up a book aimed at their age range, and read that coming out helped someone excel. In. The. Olympics.
The book also doesn’t avoid Rapinoe’s broader activism, such as the discrimination lawsuit she and other players filed against US Soccer, seeking equal pay with the men’s team. We read, too, about her taking a knee during the national anthem, following NFL player Colin Kaepernick, in protest against racism and racial profiling by police. Although she hadn’t experienced the same prejudice as Kaepernick, the book explains, she said that “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all your liberties... It’s the least I can do.” The author notes that some people saw her actions as a sign of disrespect for the country and flag, but the book’s spin on her is more positive, calling her “An out and proud activist who didn’t back down in the face of public backlash” and “a role model with pink hair.”
It’s hard to disagree, especially when we read that while she had supported President Obama “because she shared his values when it came to equality, racial justice, and human rights,” she felt that “Trump, his administration, and their agenda were morally wrong.” That was why she said she would not go to the White House if President Trump invited the team.
I’ve focused on Rapinoe here because this is an LGBTQ publication — but the sections on Morgan, Lloyd, and Pugh are equally good biographies of strong, accomplished women who have worked hard to get where they are today. Young soccer players and fans of all identities should love this exciting, inspirational, and informative volume. LGBTQ middle-schoolers (especially gay girls) may find it particularly resonant — but as Rapinoe herself said, knowing her story may even help straight people better understand gay people as people. Having this book not only published by a major publisher, but also under the name of one of the most lauded authors of youth sports biographies, also means it’s likely to end up on a lot of library shelves. Get this volume for all the young soccer players in your life (and maybe even some of the soccer parents, too).