Sisters remain strong in face of adversity

September, 6, 2008

One of the stories I most looked forward to writing this season was going to be the one about twin sisters Megan and Rachael Rapinoe reuniting for a final run together at the University of Portland after circumstances and a string of injuries limited two gifted attacking players to only a handful of games together during the past four years.

Sadly, the reunion ended before the clock struck midnight on Labor Day.

A fifth-year senior, Rachael was injured during the first half of Portland's 1-0 win against USC on Monday, and Thursday brought official confirmation that she had torn the ACL in her left knee for the second year in a row.

The sisters played club soccer together for Elk Grove United (Calif.) before signing on at Portland, and a second-place finish at the 2003 U-19 national championship could have been just the opening act in a run of collective successes. Instead, it was something of a last hurrah.

Obligations with the Under-19 national team kept Megan from playing college soccer in 2004, when Rachael was a reserve in her first season with the Pilots. The next year turned out to be the only season in which the sisters played an entire campaign together for Portland, but even as Megan raced to national freshman-of-the-year honors after recording 43 points on 15 goals and 13 assists, Rachael still searched for minutes off the bench, primarily as a defender, and battled debilitating fatigue as a result of what was then undiagnosed anemia.

Rachael's health improved with diagnosis and treatment, and her role changed, in what now seems a manner sadly consistent with their story, when Megan tore an ACL 11 games into the 2006 season. Already playing up top, Rachael came through with a breakthrough offensive performance, including scoring five goals in a four-game postseason run that ended in a 2-1 quarterfinal loss at UCLA.

So with both players having proven their finishing touch, last season promised the potential for better things. Only promise quickly turned back into pain when Megan again tore her ACL two games into the schedule and Rachael fell victim to the same injury two games after that. When I had a chance to watch the Pilots practice before a game against Santa Clara later in the season, both sisters were there, resting the telltale bulky knee braces on the seat of a maintenance cart as they watched their teammates.

Facing her second round of rehab -- the same situation her sister is now in -- Megan reflected on her reaction to a second season-ending knee injury.

"I wasn't really upset in the sense of crying; I was just like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' It's a devastating injury, obviously," Megan said at the time. "Just the fact that it takes so long to recover from, it's such a long process. Mentally it's harder than physically. Physically, your body, it can handle it if it gets pain and anguish it has to go through. But mentally, I think it's even harder this time around than last time."

When I first talked to Megan, she was one of the youngest players on the roster for the United States national team for a friendly against Canada in the summer of 2006. Even then, before the first of her own knee injuries, she articulated a refreshingly pragmatic worldview, respectful of her surroundings but also aware of the extent of her talents and her limitations. And while the twins possess different personalities -- Rachael described herself as the more reserved of the two -- the same perspective appeared in her words.

This season should have been their reward for enduring a staggering run of misfortune, and a chance to shine together on the field for the first and final time as collegians. That won't happen, but the partnership that never had a chance to blossom on the field has never faltered off the field.

"I think I'm a big help to her," Megan said last fall. "She has no idea [about the rehab process], and it's kind of a scary, dark hole that you have to go down, and you can't see the light for about six months. So I think it's good for both of us to be able to go through the same thing and be able to lean on each other. I mean, we're so close; we're best friends, so I think it's really important for us to be able to lean on each other."

Star-crossed as teammates, they remain the strongest of sisters.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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