TORONTO (AP) – Megan Rapinoe is unique.
No, not just because of the signature short blonde hairstyle she sports, or because of her recent decision to announce that she is gay. Rapinoe is unique because of the way she plays the game of soccer. She combines speed, skill and grace with an elegance and tenacity, a mixture that has helped her emerge as a starter on the US women's national team .
Rapinoe gained world acclaim last summer when she delivered the pinpoint cross that helped set up Abby Wambach's dramatic winner against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals, and then provided a pivotal spark for the USA during the team's semifinal victory against France .
Back then, Rapinoe emerged as a super sub. A year later, Rapinoe has played her way into a starting role, joining fellow skilled midfielder Lauren Cheney in edging veterans and past Olympic heroes Carli Lloyd and Heather O'Reilly in the national team pecking order.
"We're feeling thankful that (coach Pia Sundhage) put us on the field, but we've earned it and we're ready to go out there and show that we've earned it," Rapinoe told FOX Soccer about her and Cheney's emergence as starters. "It was always a little bit frustrating for Cheney and I because it always felt like it was one or the other, we hadn't had that many chances to play together.
"I think we're happy about being on the field together and we have a good connection on the field and can bring a lot to this team."
The list of contributions Rapinoe makes to the team is an impressive one. Along with the tenacious work rate she brings, Rapinoe is the team's best crosser of the ball, which makes her vital to an attack that features the aerial dominance of Wambach as well as Alex Morgan's growing game.
"When she plays well, she can do so many things that make us better," said Sundhage. "If we are going to be better at holding the ball and effective with creating chances, Megan is going to have a big role in that."
"We want to possess and play a nice style of soccer, and not lose our style as well and not lose some of the strengths we have over some of these countries," Rapinoe said. "As a team, we have the versatility to beat you in different ways and that will only make us tougher to deal with in the Olympics."
Where Rapinoe has the current edge over a veteran like O'Reilly is in her ability to play possession soccer. She can play the killer through ball, but also deliver the pin-point cross. Rapinoe showed at the World Cup that the big stage will not rattle her.
Rapinoe has already shown in recent weeks what she can bring to the starting lineup. In the team's recent win against Canada, she was instrumental in both of the USA's goals and was all over the field, looking every bit like a two-way midfielder capable of spearheading the American offense as a starter.
Much like most of her teammates, Rapinoe heads into the Olympics with the memories of last year's World Cup final disappointment.
"We have another year under our belt and going through a major championship like we went through last year will only make us tougher," Rapinoe said. "To have that kind of experience, but also have the motivation from not having won the World Cup, is something that will drive us."
Off the field, Rapinoe made news recently with her decision to announce her homosexuality. Though she was already out to her family and friends, Rapinoe decided it was time to go public.
"I've been thinking about it for a while and been trying to do something but it never quite worked out," Rapinoe. "It was a big event and a sort of non-event in a sense. It's important to be visible and stand up and be counted, and say this is who I am and I'm very proud of that, which is important for me.
"I really didn't feel a change," Rapinoe said. "It's a little bit different being out in the media, but I've been out to my family and friends, so nothing has changed there."
Rapinoe is part of a recent wave of celebrities to announce their homosexuality. TV news anchor Anderson Cooper and singer Frank Ocean grabbed most of the headlines with their recent announcements, and Rapinoe considers those developments a sign of how much progress is being made when it comes to acceptance of homosexuals in society.
"It's really great seeing more people do it," Rapinoe said. "I'm not saying everybody should do it because it's a personal choice, but I think sometimes people make such a big deal out of it because it becomes a kind of a controversy and everybody talks about it."
For Rapinoe, this summer stands as a good chance of being one of the breakout stars of the Olympics. Though she has already played in a World Cup, Rapinoe speaks glowingly about having her first chance to compete for an Olympic medal, an event she has loved since her childhood in northern California.
"This one's special," Rapinoe said of the Olympics. "I feel like I'm a little bit older than most people at their first Olympics, but I've waited a long time for this so I'm absolutely thrilled. I'm a huge fan of the Olympics in general so this is a dream come true."
As for the gold medal she and her teammates are aiming for, Rapinoe will not go as far to guarantee that the United States will win a third straight Olympic title. Nonetheless, she does sound like someone who believes her team is good enough to make it happen.
"As a team, we're better than last year and I'm supremely confident that we're ready to win this tournament," Rapinoe said. "Everybody remembers what it felt like losing the World Cup and nobody wants that feeling again."
From super sub to potential super starter, Rapinoe will have her chance to make sure that doesn't happen again, and all the unique qualities she brings to the team could be just what ensures a third gold medal for the USA women.