FRANKFURT, Germany – Apart from her bleached blonde hair, Megan Rapinoe's most striking feature is her beaming smile, one which has been virtually ever-present during the United States' charge to the Women's World Cup final.
Rapinoe has become the USA's "super sub" during the knockout stages of the tournament due to her habit of coming off the bench and turning games on their head with her speed and attacking flair. Her sunny attitude seems to sum up everything that is good about a squad that has captured the hearts of a nation back home.
Yet during a quiet moment on Friday, that trademark grin disappeared for a while as the 26-year-old from Redding, Calif., reflected on the journey that she and her family have endured to reach the pinnacle of her sport.
"When I think about where we are, and then think of my mom … it brings me to tears," Rapinoe told Yahoo! Sports.
Rapinoe's mother Denise is a cheery waitress who has worked at the same Redding steakhouse, Jack's Grill, for the past 24 years. Over the past three weeks, though, she has swapped her regular hours at Jack's, a lively and popular local hangout, for the unfamiliar surroundings of Germany following the USA's journey to Sunday's final against Japan every step of the way.
"It means everything to me to have her here cheering me on," Rapinoe of her mom. "We feel like we are going to win this thing and if we do it would be the absolute highlight of my career and one of the greatest things to happen in my life.
"For her to have made the effort and sacrifice to be here is so special, but it is no surprise because she has done that for me all my life."
Denise Rapinoe and her husband Jim didn't really do vacations during Megan's childhood. Every scrap of spare time was taken up with their daughter's soccer exploits, spending countless hours on the roads of Northern California to travel to tournaments and games in Sacramento, San Francisco and even as far south as Los Angeles.
The payoff may come on Sunday.
"When I think about everything they gave up for me, I know I can never pay that back," Rapinoe said. "But if I can go over to the stands and see my mom and put a winners' medal around her neck, that will be an amazing moment for both of us."
Back in Redding, Jack's Grill will be packed on Sunday morning. Regulars and staff who have followed Megan's soccer career vicariously through the proud tales of her mother will don Rapinoe replica shirts and scream themselves hoarse at television footage from Frankfurt's Commerzbank Arena.
"The whole town is into it," said Don Conley, the owner of Jack's. "Everyone wants to be there, even the people who have never watched a game of soccer before in their life.
Jim Rapinoe remained in California but Denise has not been short of company in Germany. Virtually every member of the squad has been supported by friends and family, and the travelling army has cut a colorful and visible presence wherever they have gone by sporting face paint and red-white-and-blue clothing and waving flags and banners.
Abby Wambach, the youngest of seven children, has been cheered on by a large entourage of family members, while Lauren Cheney's entourage has included her boyfriend (NBA point guard) Jrue Holiday and his brother.
"It has been a huge boost for us to have people around us who know us as more than soccer players," said Cheney who scored the opening goal in the semifinal against France on Wednesday. "It has been special to share in the excitement. There have been parents crying with happiness after every game and we have really put them through it emotionally because the games have been so tense."
For every game, the U.S. family members and friends congregate in the same part of the arena and form an organized cheering section that has always served to elevate the general crowd atmosphere.
"It is an inspiration for us to look over and see them there," captain Christie Rampone said. "I wish we could have made their lives a bit easier instead of causing them a heart attack each game, but we know they are there for us all the way to the end."
- Megan Rapinoe