Roughly a year-and-a-half ago, three-time WNBA champion Sue Bird best encapsulated how we were all feeling.
Most of the nation was coming off four weeks of watching the U.S. women's national soccer team power through the competition at the World Cup in France, making a pretty powerful statement about their right to earn at least as much as the men's squad. We'd seen them return home to the States, full of well-earned swagger, and cheered as they celebrated, unapologetically, with magnums of champagne and all the ticker tape in New York City.
"I was PROUD," Bird summed up in a 2019 essay for The Players' Tribune. "I was pretending to know about soccer. I was a little overwhelmed. I was pretty damn American. And I was in love with Megan Rapinoe."
Hard same. Bird's heartwarmingly genuine op-ed wasn't our first glimpse at the inner workings of one of sports' reigning power couples. But it was, perhaps, the best.
In the piece called, "So the President F*cking Hates My Girlfriend," the 40-year-old WNBA standout opened up about how Rapinoe's sensitivity and compassion for others drove her to take a knee during the national anthem. She wrote about watching her partner of four years claim her throne as "the world's biggest most kissable goofball queen" and issued a "formal apology to everyone who was on the plane with me last week, and had to watch me fistpump like a bozo after each of Megan's goals."
With the nation at peak Rapinoe hysteria, the essay went viral, everyone falling just a little bit more in love with the pink-tressed, unflappable dynamo—whose six goals earned her both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball trophies as the tourney's top scorer and most valuable player—and her girlfriend who clearly adored her even more than the rest of us.
"I'm kind of wild, and people are f--king here for it," Rapinoe joked to InStyle last October, detailing the differences between her and Bird, who's "more private and keeps things close to the vest." Together, though, they make for some pretty damn good teammates. "I always tell her," Rapinoe continued, "'If you break up with me, I'm going to crumble. I'll be a pile of ashes. So think about it, because you'll ruin my life.'"
Or, as she put it more simply in a February Instagram of the two at NBA's All-Star weekend, "I yike her. A lot."
Like, a lot, the two confirming their recent engagement with matching instagram posts of Rapinoe's proposal. The seaside milestone is certainly a standout amongst a lifetime of highlight reel-worthy moments.
Together, Bird and Rapinoe, 35, nabbed two FIFA World Cups, four WNBA and three NCAA championships (Bird playing for the legendary UConn Huskies squad) and five Olympic gold medals. But it's Bird's hardware from the 2016 games in Rio that is, perhaps, the most important.
Because it was there that they first connected, some 7,000 miles from where they both lived and worked in Seattle, Rapinoe, as a midfielder for Reign FC; Bird as the Storm's point guard. A knee injury hampering Rapinoe, the women's soccer team failed to get past the quarterfinals. So with extra time on their hands, she and a few of her teammates devoted their talents to cheering on Bird and co. to their eventual gold.
At an after-party celebrating the team's victory, "Sue's friends say that she lingered around the table, but I didn't really notice that too much," Rapinoe recalled to InStyle.
It wasn't until they were back home in the Evergreen State that two of the city's brightest stars joined forces. It began with Rapinoe sliding into Bird's DMs, as the 11-time WNBA All-Star likes to put it, not to compliment her shot or take another stab at an opening line (her first was an, admittedly cringey, "Getting ready for a game?" in reference to the full hair-and-makeup Bird was sporting with her uniform at an Olympics press day), but rather commend the Black Lives Matter stance she and her teammates had taken.
"Our team had just worn the black shirts and kind of made a stand, if you will," Bird explained at the 2017 ESPNW Women and Sports Summit of their protest in the wake of the recent deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and so many other Black men and women. "We were chatting about that." Soon, they were texting about any number of things, said Bird, "and the rest was history."
Officially a couple by that September, they would confirm as such in a 2017 ESPNW profile. Open about her sexuality since coming out to her twin Rachael Rapinoe during their freshman year at the University of Portland—"I feel really lucky that I didn't internally struggle with it," the soccer star told The Seattle Times—Rapinoe had been public about romances she'd shared with with Australian soccer player Sarah Walsh and Seattle musician Sera Cahoone. But, true to her more reserved form, Bird never felt the need to discuss her private life or the two serious relationships she had before connecting with Rapinoe.
"I kinda always felt like I am out, for all intents and purposes. So I always came from the standpoint of, 'Why does writing it in an article or saying it in an article make me gay?'" she reasoned to the paper. "That doesn't make me gay or not. I'm living my life, I'm not lying, I don't hide it." She'd been waffling on the issue for more than a year, though, and as she discussed it with her new girlfriend, she began to realize what an impact seeing two of the biggest names in sports simply be together could make.
"You kinda say, 'Well, straight people don't have to come out.' I understand now that's not necessarily the right way to look at it," she noted. "Megan and I would have conversations about it, and she opened my eyes to another way of looking at it, which is that in today's time, in today's society, it's still important to kind of say it to make it the norm."
So there she was, 2002's No. 1 draft pick, confirming to ESPNW what was obvious to those that had spotted the pair tooling around Lake Washington in Rapinoe's pontoon boat or attending Seattle Pride. "I'm gay. Megan's my girlfriend. ... These aren't secrets to people who know me."
And in the summer of 2018, not long after Rapinoe moved into Bird's condo in the city's Queen Anne neighborhood, they became the first same-sex pair to strip down for the cover of ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue".
"I think neither of us really wants to just do things and be like, 'We're the gay couple.' But to have this really unique vehicle to actually do that, to celebrate who we are in our sport, but also the fact that we'll be the first gay couple, is pretty special." Rapinoe explained. "It's pretty amazing to think about, especially in the times we're in. Just think of how far we've come, but also the current climate and defiance in the face of that. Not only are we female athletes, but we're dating as well. It's kind of badass."
Which is fitting because they're pretty freakin' bad ass. "We have a lot in common and just sort of clicked," Rapinoe told ESPNW. "I joke she is my No. 1 go-to-for-advice person. She's just so level-headed."
As is the case with pretty much any successful couple, they've learned to adapt to each other's differences. For Rapinoe that's meant admitting that maybe Bird was on to something with her vegetable-heavy, low-sugar, low-dairy diet. "Once we met and started dating, she was already, like, on it," Rapinoe noted to ESPN. "And then I saw the difference so quickly and saw the change in myself so quickly that I was like, 'Oh, this is actually working. I'm gonna keep on this. Keep playin' 'til I'm 37.'"
Bird, meanwhile, has learned to roll with the California native's habit of leaving lights on everywhere and making her mark wherever she goes—a dent in the wall from the time she accidentally vacuumed too hard; a mark on the floor from when she tried her hand at yo-yo-ing. And she's found the fun in Rapinoe's more impulsive moments, employing a trope she invented called "Megan Goggles" that she attempted to explain in the Player's Tribune.
"So: Megan, she just does things sometimes. Do it…..then love it…..then—later, at the very end, if there's time—worry about it. That's her M.O.," she said of the athlete's habit of, say, bleaching her eyebrows on a whim or dyeing her hair pink the night before leaving for the World Cup. "Me, on the other hand…..I'm nothing like that. I'm more of the worry about it first…..and then later, if there's time, do it type. So the idea of Megan Goggles, I guess, it's this idea of like—they're this thing that I put on, and it helps me loosen up a bit?? And just open my eyes, and see the world from Megan's Extremely Megan perspective."
Besides their differing free-spirit and practical tendencies, the two are opposites in myriad of smaller ways. While New York-bred Bird is fine with her sneakers and casual wear and $4 moisturizer, Burberry- and Celine-loving Rapinoe, who has her own lifestyle brand and fills her medicine cabinet with Dior serums and $49 Shisheido sunscreen, is so into designer fashions she took over the entire second bedroom closet of their condo and was positively giddy when Bird stepped out in Gucci (another Rapinoe fave) for their joint InStyle shoot.
And, sure, Rapinoe may be a bit more brash, a what you see is what you get type, and Bird likes to carefully consider what parts of herself she'll share with the world, but when it comes to the big things, the who you are at your core type stuff, they're in lockstep. "Sue has the same convictions about her life and the things she believes in as I do but, I think, does it in a different way," Rapinoe explained in that 2017 ESPNW profile. Agreed Bird, "I can be quiet and a little shy. I'm usually just dipping my toe in the water until the extrovert part of me can come out."
In their own ways, both are preparing for a second act as activists. Last year Bird organized a deal with USA Basketball to ensure top players were paid handsomely enough to stay in the States to train together ahead of the Olympics rather than head over to Europe where they can pull down large paychecks. "In 20 years I want to be that disgruntled professional athlete who's retired and is like, 'Oh, I only made $100,000, and now they're making a million,'" she told InStyle. "I feel like if I'm that person, that means I did something right."
Meanwhile Rapinoe, who signed a two-book deal with Penguin Press, including a forthcoming memoir, One Life, is making the most of a 2019 that saw her recognized as one of Glamour's Women of the Year, FIFA Women's Player of the Year and Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year, using her spotlight to continue the charge forward for pay equity. "As a female athlete, you kind of wait your whole life to be in a position where you can capitalize on this," she explained. "And it's at a point where it's never been, and it's so exciting."
The same sentiment could be said of the life she shares with Bird, an existence complete with early morning cuddles, Mexican vacations, the podcast they created together to pass their time in quarantine and more than a few chill nights at home. Thanking her partner "for being everything to me," Rapinoe shared in a September 2019 tribute, "The laughs and tears, long conversations and debates, the bouncing of ideas, the unwavering support and endless cuddles and egg sandwiches. We usually aren't ones to IG gush but today seemed like it was necessary. I am a better woman for being yours."
And we're all the better for being able to witness it.
(Originally published June 21, 2020, at 12 a.m. PT)