Sue Bird on Megan Rapinoe’s impending retirement: ‘We’re excited to start this phase’

Megan Rapinoe already had her big send-off from the U.S. women’s national team last month, but this time it’s OL Reign’s turn. The team has opened up additional seating at their home stadium, Lumen Field in Seattle, and has the potential to set the new NWSL record attendance for a standalone match (San Diego currently holds the top spot with a sellout crowd of 32,000). There will be pre- and post-game ceremonies honoring Rapinoe’s history with the club.

The city will get involved too, with the local ferries bearing “Forever Rapinoe” flags and buildings across town (including Lumen Field) lighting up “Pinoe Pink” on Friday night.

Beside Rapinoe on Friday night will be her fiancée Sue Bird, who knows firsthand not just about retiring from a lengthy professional career, but doing so after a lengthy career in Seattle. In Bird’s case, it was after 21 years with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm last year, and she’s been waiting for Rapinoe to catch up in this new phase of their life together.

They’ll have some projects waiting for them, of course, with their production company, A Touch More, starting to gear up by hiring a new head of development in Camille Bernier Green. Rapinoe has expressed a desire to stay involved in the growth of women’s sports, too.

But first, there’s the matter of Friday night’s game against the Washington Spirit, one that has massive playoff implications as the Reign hope to hold on to the sixth and final playoff spot or push their way up the table with three points. The match will air on CBS and Paramount+ starting at 8 p.m. ET.

Bird spoke to The Athletic earlier this week to discuss these final few weeks of Rapinoe’s career on the pitch, how she’s trying to balance giving advice while being supportive, and plenty more.

What’s it like being on the flip side of the pro sports retirement experience?

Like anything, when you’re watching your partner go through anything that’s going to bring up emotions, you want to both be supportive in that and let them feel the feels. But I do have intimate knowledge from my own experience, so I am trying to sprinkle in just some, you know, tidbits here and there. No one wants to be the person that just kind of dominates like, “Well, when I did it…”

I’m very wary of that, but also chiming in when it feels right to. “Listen, this is normal” or “What you’re feeling is normal,” or “Yeah, it’s gonna be a lot, but that’s okay.” I’m letting her have her own experience, because they’re not the same.

What was Megan’s final USWNT game in Chicago like for you?

What I’m seeing for Megan’s experiences is, once she gets there, whatever the moment is, then she’s just in the moment — which is something that she has been phenomenal at throughout her career, just being in the moment. Whether it’s having to play, or having to deal with a tough press conference, always in the moment. I think that it’s been unique to see her kind of out of her element in that she has to plan for the moment, right? The moment is waiting for you, and now you have to plan as you get there, and that’s different from the spontaneity that usually exists. 

So for me, being on the field in Chicago, it was really just nice to see her be in the moment, because I got to see all that led up to that. It was really good, I feel like it was a bit of an exhale for everyone to finally be there. It’s really quick! Being on the field before the game, that happens all very quickly. Like the second we walked out there, take the picture with the jersey, they’re like, “Okay! You’re off, gotta play the game!”

I always joke, for everyone who saw my jersey retirement, there was no time limit. So it felt very quick for me (laughs). More than anything, it was just fun to be a part of it (in Chicago). The last seven years — as athletes, you’re prisoner to schedules, right? Megan missed a lot of my final season, basically all of the second half. And that was just that the schedule gods were unlucky that year. For me being retired, I can physically be at everything, so I just feel a lot of gratitude in that.

The crowd loved the kiss in Chicago. That press box is pretty much on the surface of the moon at Soldier Field and you could still hear it. Maybe it’s a little strange to think about it because it’s just your life, but do you reflect on how much has changed around smaller moments like that?

I heard the crowd. I heard the volume get a little louder, I mean, I assumed we must have gotten on camera.

In a lot of ways, it’s like an evolution. Our relationship was running parallel to people’s evolution as individuals, society’s evolution in terms of how they view same-sex couples, the LGBTQ+ community. And I think that’s what that moment was, like a really nice little cherry on top — for what was for a very long time, hidden or shied away from or not covered. And we kind of represent that, and what that moment represents is normalcy.

Rapinoe and Bird kiss prior to during Rapinoe’s USWNT farewell at Soldier Field on September 24, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

We spent some time collecting some stories about Megan, but do you maybe have one that you think is something that’s under-appreciated about her career?

The first thing that comes to mind, and it’s been documented but I just think it is under-appreciated, is just what it was for Megan from the moment she knelt (during the national anthem) until the moment she played again. Because that was like, man… Now, we look back, and by the way, very rarely does history catch up with a moment as quickly as it did. The turnaround time on that was pretty quick. Usually it takes 10, 15, sometimes 50 years for that to happen. So I think it’s easy to forget that this was an actual human who had her job taken away. There were all sorts of gray areas on why; she was being told one thing but she knew it was another, and just what that would cause in somebody.

The story has been told, but obviously I got to witness it. Honestly, it was irrational, her confidence was irrational. Her determination was irrational. There was never a wavering. You know, every now and then moments of like “Oh God, that sucks.” But otherwise, it was eyes on the prize, and that really speaks to the athlete part of Megan. You can call it irrational because, is that good for you? But in that moment, it was needed to get to the other side. From a soccer standpoint, and from the social justice part of it, it was really admirable to watch that firsthand.

What are you looking forward to for this send-off in Seattle?

I feel like I’m kind of along for the ride. I’m just enjoying it vicariously, trying to be supportive. Obviously it’s more about Megan, and really my hope for her is to really soak it in. Without saying too much, I think it’s been an interesting balance for her to embrace this type of attention because, like I said, it’s premeditated and not spontaneous. So it can feel uncomfortable. But what I learned last year is you really gotta dive into it, lean into it. 

Well, this is me saying it as if I’m talking to her: It’s gonna go so fast. When it’s over, you’re gonna wish you had more. So you might as well go all in and not feel shy or not feel embarrassed about it. It’s happening because of the things you already did, it’s just a celebration of that. So soak it all in, because no matter what, the minute you wake up the next day, you can never get that back. In a very wonderful way, but also in a sad way because it does just happen so fast.

And then, as athletes do, compartmentalize, play a game, and once the whistle happens, you go back to celebrating. Just find that balance. I think she’ll be fine. Chicago was good practice.

The end of the NWSL regular season is definitely a lot, and I can understand not just wanting the win for personal reasons but because there’s a lot riding on it. And then trying to manage the emotional part of it, too.

My advice there is, and this is so sad — actually, I’ve never said this out loud. I lost all three of my final games: my final home regular season game, my final regular season game, and then we had some wins in the playoffs, so that was great, but I lost my last game, and to the same f—ing team! And I’m sitting here totally happy and content with my career. I feel no regret. The last three moments I could have had, I came out with an L. It doesn’t change anything.

What I’ve tried to say to Megan is just, don’t put extra pressure on this. You already had the storybook, it’s already written. They’re only asking you what you want your legacy to be because you already have one, right? They’re not asking people who don’t have one. You already did it, and this one game, does it change that or define you in any other way?

My attempt there is just to take pressure off of it. Of course, we’d all like to go out winners. But it doesn’t really define anything. So you just go out there and play.

What are you looking forward to once the NWSL season wraps up and you’re both finally — as you put it — no longer prisoners to your schedules?

I fear that’s probably still gonna happen. We have a couple of small things. We’re going to go to (Jess) Fishlock’s wedding (to Tziarra King). That’s on the calendar. We do want to plan some sort of vacation just to get away. The World Cup meant that we lost our summer, so some warm weather will be nice.

We’re kind of figuring that out, because with the season and the playoffs, you just never know. So we might just save all of that until after November 11, and whatever happens in those next couple of weeks happens and we go from there. We’ve talked about where we want to go for Christmas, Thanksgiving, that kind of thing, but that’s pretty much it.

We’re excited to start this phase. I’ve kind of been waiting for her to get here, so it’s going to have both of us in the same phase of life. We’re always going to keep a home here in Seattle, and the New York City apartment really represents that new phase. 

Speaking of NYC, how much shoe storage is in that new apartment?

We’re gonna have to be reeeeeaaaal strategic. It’s going to be a minimalist life, and we’re not minimalist.

(Top photo: Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports)

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