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Megan Rapinoe: Twice Removed, But Never Gone

Struck down twice by the three most dreaded letters in women’s soccer – ACL – Megan Rapinoe has persevered through two trying years of almost non-stop rehabilitation to make a return to the U.S. Women’s National Team.

Young, supremely talented and just a little bit naïve. That was Megan Rapinoe circa 2006.

Not naïve in an “Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless” sort of way. More like “the world is my oyster. I have the invincibility of youth!”

Rapinoe was one of the USA’s top players at the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup in Thailand, scoring three goals, including a cracker against Brazil in the third-place match. After red-shirting what would have been her freshman season at the University of Portland to play in the World Cup, she was a key player on the Pilot’s undefeated 2005 NCAA Championship team, scoring 15 goals with 13 assists. She was arguably the top freshman in the country.

Those performances led to her first call-ups to the senior Women’s National Team and, in 2006 she played in four matches and scored two goals. Granted, those scores came in a 10-0 route of minnow Chinese Taipei, but it was clear that her full international career was gaining some major momentum.

Cue the screeching brakes and the sound of crunching metal. Actually, one very audible pop of a ligament.

“By the fall of 2006, I felt like the nerves that every new player has had started to wear off,” said the now 23-year-old Rapinoe, who hails from the extreme northern California town of Redding. “I starting making a few rosters and was starting to feel confident. I felt like going into the next year I was going to be able to compete for a spot on the World Cup team.”

But while playing for Portland just four days after her brace against Chinese Taipei, she went to block an innocuous pass against Washington State, landed awkwardly and went down in a heap. She knew immediately that her life had changed. But she had no idea in what ways.

“I’d been around the game long enough and been around enough people who had torn their ACL to know it was bad,” said Rapinoe. “It’s a feeling like nothing else. It’s nothing like spraining your ankle. You hear a pop and you just know.”

But with that knowledge came a feeling of impending doom and then, quite naturally, a torrent of “what if’s” and “why me’s?”

“My first thoughts were, ‘Oh my gosh. This can’t be happening.’ I’m coming off an NCAA Championship year, I’m having a great sophomore year, I’m breaking into the national team. Why now?”

Of course, there is no answer to that question, only action to be taken. The quicker a young player can accept their unfortunate circumstance and throw themselves full bore into rehabilitation, the sooner they can get back on the field. So Rapinoe did that.

She spent a year of hard work getting healthy and then just before the 2007 season, in the cruelest twist of fate – pun intended – she took another bad step during training. “I knew I had injured my knee again, but I was sort of in denial,” she said. Rapinoe had an evaluation and was told that she had probably partially torn that same left ACL, but unwilling to accept it, she kept playing. After playing 10 minutes in one match, she knew it wasn’t right, that she wasn’t herself, that she’d torn it again. Upon further examination, she in fact had totally torn it and would need another ACL surgery.

“Maybe I rushed my rehab,” said Rapinoe about an injury that usually takes at least 12 months to totally regain all the strength, agility and explosion. “I was just was trying to get back quickly. I tried to be that super athlete who could just bounce right back, but sometimes it’s just not possible. Your body heals at a certain rate, and you just have to give it time.”

She went under the knife again on Sept. 25, 2007, but when she came out of surgery, she started to develop a new perspective. She told herself to slow down, to give up some control and to be patient. That wasn’t easy for a person who does not list patience as one of her virtues, saying that you better not tell her you have a surprise for her and then not spill the beans right away, or she’ll bug you all day until she finds out. She had a year until her next college season, so she no time limit on her recovery. She took a more cerebral approach, and not only did it work, but she came out of the experience a better and more mature person.

“I know this sounds weird, but getting hurt was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she said. “It really gave me a different perspective. Before, everything was going how it was supposed to be and I wasn’t really appreciative of what I was doing and what it took to be there. The injury grounded me in a lot of different ways. The rehab process makes you stronger on all fronts, mentally and physically. I feel stronger and a better person for it. I would never wish it on anyone, but I don’t wish I could take it back.”

During an excellent 2008 season at UP, she started to once again show the form that two years earlier had made her one of the USA’s rising young stars. Her play caught the attention of U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage, who after a narrow focus on players for the Olympics last year, was now starting to cast a wider web in search for young talent that could contribute during next cycle on the long road to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Sundhage called Rapinoe in early December.

“Pia said, ‘Are you fit? Do you want to play? I want to call you into the January camp,’” said Rapinoe. “She said, ‘It’s a good Christmas present, huh?’ I was like, ‘Yes, thank you!’”

“I felt very ready,” said Rapinoe of her first national team training camp in more than two years. “I didn’t feel like that nervous young kid who is just getting a shot. It took the whole college season for me to feel normal again, but I did always feel I would have the opportunity to be back if I was healthy. I just didn’t know it would come this soon.”

Rapinoe had a good to very good training camp at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., in January, playing well enough to earn a spot on the 18-player Algarve Cup roster. She will likely be coming out of the midfield during the tournament, but she played attacking midfielder quite a bit during her days at UP.

“I feel better than ever,” said Rapinoe. “I am stronger all around, and more fit. I feel like I know my body a lot better, which means I know how to train and take care of my body to make it feel its best. Before, I never noticed it. It was sort of, it wasn’t broke, so don’t fix it. I needed to do a lot of things to get where I am now, and your body remembers that.”

Rapinoe actually had one season of college eligibility left at Portland, but having already graduated, gave it up to play in the new WPS (she was drafted second overall by the Chicago Red Stars). Back in 2006, this was a path she thought she would take, but surely she had no idea it would be so littered with bumps and pot-holes.

“There are some things you can control, and some you can’t,” said Rapinoe. “You get caught up in being so tough as an athlete, and that is part of what makes great athletes great, but what I learned that sometimes it’s the exact opposite. Sometime the best and hardest thing to do is to do nothing and have that sense of patience. This experience really opened my eyes to show me that playing soccer is what I want to do as a career right now. Sitting out that long and having to watch everyone do what you want to be doing gives you a unique perspective. I think I really appreciate everything more in terms of my soccer life, because I know what it’s like to have it all taken away, two times in a row. I definitely feel very fortunate to be here, to be healthy and to be playing the game I love so much.”