This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2018.
You have to wonder what the trophy case at Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe's place looks like, other than really, really big. The superstar athletes, who made their relationship public in July 2017, have been dominating their respective sports (Bird in basketball, Rapinoe in soccer) for over a decade. Together, they've got five Olympic gold medals -- along with plenty of muscle and scars -- to show for it. On the set of their recent Body Issue photo shoot, the couple sat down with ESPN's Jemele Hill to talk about battling injuries, having to kick their nutrition up a notch and who would win in a foot race.
JEMELE HILL: Who came up with the idea that you guys should do the Body Issue as a couple?
SUE BIRD: Oh, I don't even know.
MEGAN RAPINOE: I thought it was a joke at first. I was like, "Yeah!" And then they were like, "OK, give us dates." And I was like, "I'm sorry, what?"
HILL: So what was it that made you agree to do it?
RAPINOE: I mean, the Body Issue is just cool. I've done it once before. But even just looking through the magazine every year, it's a celebration of athletes in the way that we look, the muscles, the scars ...
BIRD: I totally agree. I look at it as more of an honor than anything else.
HILL: You guys are the first openly gay couple to be on the cover of the Body Issue. What does that mean to you?
RAPINOE: 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. 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.
BIRD: Yeah, I think it'll probably be even more badass later. A year, five years, 10 years, 20 years, to look back and be like, "Oh, they were the first openly gay couple to be on the cover, to be in the issue."
RAPINOE: I think it's important to do these things first. It's important for people to come out. Visibility is important. It's important for there to be a first one on the cover [of the Body Issue], or whatever. Just in terms of the culture and society, someone has to do it.
HILL: How did you prepare?
RAPINOE: We tightened it up a little bit.
BIRD: Yeah. Like, more the nutrition ...
RAPINOE: I complained about it every day ...
BIRD: The whole time.
RAPINOE: I was actually obnoxious about it, but I just couldn't stop. It's not like we fasted or anything. There was a tweak here or there. But I just complained about it the whole time. [Laughs]
BIRD: But luckily, we're already in season. So we're already kind of eating the right way.
RAPINOE: We're going for burgers and fries tonight.
BIRD: Oh yeah, we're smashing it.
HILL: You guys are from two different sports. What athletic skill sets do you respect about each other?
BIRD: Well, we've argued about soccer or basketball -- who's the better athlete? Their endurance is something that is pretty insane. Just the fact that they can go out there and run, I forget what it is, 8 to 9 miles in an hour and a half. That's crazy. But sometimes she'll do stuff, like, footwork-wise with the ball, the way she places it. I'm a hands person with basketball, so it'd be easy to wrap my head around throwing something and hitting it right on target. But doing it with your feet? And I played soccer. But even still, watching that, how accurate she is with the ball ...
RAPINOE: I've done, like, one shooting drill, and it's so hard. The constant go, go, go. And you're getting low in a defensive stance, that ability to change direction over and over and over and over again and then still be able to think.
HILL: So who wins in a foot race?
RAPINOE: We've had a major ongoing conversation about this.
BIRD: I'm too old. In our primes?
HILL: You're prime right now.
BIRD: I don't know, I think right now she'd beat me. I'm not just saying that. It pains me to say it actually. [Laughs] I think right now she'd beat me.
RAPINOE: I think ... well, yeah. I think so.
BIRD: There it is. The truth.
RAPINOE: But prime-prime, I think you might be a little faster.
HILL: Sue, I understand that in this relationship, you're the person who's all about the nutrition, and Megan, you're a little more lax. So how do you make that work?
BIRD: For me, [nutrition] became so important. My lifeline to be able to play was to do all these things.
RAPINOE: Once we met and started dating, she was already, like, on it. 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." [Laughs.]
BIRD: Yeah, at least!
HILL: Physically, what are some of the challenges you've experienced? What's the worst thing your body has ever gone through?
BIRD: I've had, like, 10 surgeries in my life. Four or so on my knee. My hip and my nose a couple of times. I think when you go through any surgery, your body changes. And with that, it can be probably the toughest mental challenge you're gonna face. It's not even a physical challenge. Yes, there's pain involved. Yes, you have to go through the rehab and all that stuff. But more than anything, it challenges you mentally. So my body's taken a toll. Particularly the knee surgeries. Those ones are the roughest. It's really challenged my mind, which has made me stronger. So in some ways, I'm thankful for it. But it wasn't easy.
RAPINOE: I've also had my fair share of injuries. But I got meningitis when I was, gosh, this was 2009 or 2010. It wasn't, like, the close-to-dying kind. But it was the horrendous-pain kind. And I didn't know what it was. I had just come back from Australia. As soon as I landed at LAX, I was, like, "Whoa, something's not right." And then two days after that, I couldn't get out of bed. I lost, like, 12 pounds. It was this whole monthlong ordeal that absolutely crushed me.
HILL: How does it work when you guys both have exceptional competitive instincts? How does that work within a relationship?
BIRD: I mean, except for the whole "Who is more athletic -- basketball or soccer players?" it's the most uncompetitive relationship I've ever been in, by far.
RAPINOE: Yeah ...
BIRD: And that includes friendships, everything. We don't really compete in that way. I think because we are so competitive on the court and the field. When we're home, it's like you just want to chill.
HILL: So what's the most impressive physical feat you've ever accomplished?
RAPINOE: I feel like this last World Cup was insane. It was in Canada, so I can't even remember the amount of miles that we flew. It was seven different cities. We were flying all over the place. A game every, like, four days or something. Seven games in a row. To be able to be at your peak every game was something.
BIRD: I'm gonna have to take it back to high school track. I thought that basketball and soccer were hard. And then I went to track practice. It's just running and running and running. And my event was the 400 hurdles. I ended up qualifying for state. But looking back on it, track was hard. I've never felt as nervous as I did before a track meet. Literally, stomach going crazy. 'Cause it was just so difficult.
HILL: What's the most impressive physical feat you've seen each other do?
RAPINOE: Oh gosh. Sue has this trainer who puts together these crazy workouts that you seem to really breeze through. They seem a lot harder for me than they are for you. I'm like, "How does she never take breaks?"
HILL: Why does this feel like the right time to have an openly gay couple on the cover of the Body Issue?
RAPINOE: What better time than when we need to be celebrating things that are different about us and accepting them and trying to understand them better? It's pretty incredible to be in this moment.
HILL: How does it make you guys feel that now you're a symbol for a lot of people?
BIRD: Prior to me coming out, these were conversations that Megan and I had all the time. Just, what it actually means. Why you have to do it. 'Cause everybody in my life knows. It was not a surprise or shock. But that's not the same as coming out. It really isn't. Being around Megan, I learned that. And then after I came out, just seeing the reactions. Having people come up to me directly. I think there's just something really powerful about that. For some who maybe didn't know I was gay, I think it meant a lot and it changes some people's perception on what being gay is.
RAPINOE: I think I feel comfortable, in more of that outspoken way, for whatever reason, and I feel like it's kind of cool to have that. I'm very lucky to be able to play the sport and have the platform and be on the teams. And to be able to use that for good, it just seems like a no-brainer. There's so many wonderful things that come along with the life that I get to live. I can't just take all of the good and live this secluded life. That's just not me. I feel like there's a lot that I can share. And I feel like there are a lot of negative ideas that hopefully I can break down just by being myself.
BIRD: The way I see it is more how you want to change the conversation or change the narrative of things. I think having a gay couple on [the cover], hopefully it just becomes the norm. You want it to not be an issue. You want it to just be, Oh, another couple is on there. You know, I think for us to be on it is the first step in that direction.
For more from the 2018 Body Issue, pick up a copy on newsstands starting June 29.
Set Design by Doug Clark; Makeup by Heidi Nymark/Art Department; Hair by Erin Skipley