On July 10, 1999, Brandi Chastain etched her name into sports history. After the match was scoreless through both regulation and extra time, that year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup Final against China had come down to penalty kicks. The fate of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) rested with Chastain.
Even now, two decades later, the moment instinctively makes you hold your breath while watching it. But the sigh of relief comes as Chastain nails the shot, crowning the USA the world’s champion.
Overcome with pure elation, Chastain rips off her jersey and waves it around her head before falling to her knees. In matter of seconds, she is lost in an embrace from her team as cheers echo throughout the Rose Bowl stadium.
But for some, Chastain’s story became less about securing an incredible victory for her country and more about the scene that followed. Critics were quick to voice their concern with the fact that she had revealed her black Nike sports bra to millions of eyes. To them, her bare stomach had somehow managed to eclipse the win.
Yet, this expression of emotion is hardly ever questioned in the same way when it comes from male athletes. All it takes is a quick Google search to see dozens of images of men marking their accomplishments by unveiling their abs. Even in celebration, women are often not afforded the luxury of a level playing field.
Twenty years after Chastain’s sports bra rose to fame, the USWNT is still on top of the world. They won the World Cup for the third time in 2015, and they’ll begin to defend that crown in less than a month in France.
Yet despite their tremendous success, they have have found themselves in not just a fight to be paid as much as their male counterparts, but in a fight for equality across the board.
On International Women’s Day 2019, the 28 members of the USWNT came together to file a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) on the basis of gender discrimination.
It’s a battle that USWNT co-captain Megan Rapinoe says that she and her teammates would rather not have to suit up for. “Obviously, we would love to not be in this fight,” she told SI Swimsuit. “We would love to not have to file this lawsuit and not have to engage in this, but that’s just not what’s happening.”
What is happening is that year after year, the USSF continues to allocate fewer resources towards women’s soccer than to the men. From salaries, to marketing and promotion, to adequate training and playing conditions, the lawsuit asserts that the women are getting the short end of the stick, all while they continue to dominate their sport. It’s an issue that’s all too common in the workplace—not just on the soccer field—and it’s driving the members of the USWNT to speak up on behalf female athletes and women everywhere.
Following the lawsuit announcement, Rapinoe and her co-captain Alex Morgan continued to reinforce the importance of combating gender inequality. In what Morgan describes as a “whirlwind” few days, the two women gave countless interviews, making their voices heard on programs like the The Today Show and Good Morning America.
And then, after attending Nike’s unveiling of 14 brand new Women’s World Cup uniforms, the two captains made their way to St. Lucia to join teammates Crystal Dunn and Abby Dahlkemper in representing the USWNT in this year’s SI Swimsuit issue.
For these four women, appearing in the magazine is a logical extension of their crusade. SI Swimsuit is a space where they can feel proud to highlight the bodies they have worked so tirelessly for, the bodies that have collectively scored hundreds of goals and trained for thousands of hours, the same bodies they feel the USSF has taken for granted.
Each one of these bodies has had its own unique journey.
The youngest of the four, the 25-year-old Dahlkemper has already been faced with adversity. At the end of 2016, a toe injury turned into a frightening septic infection that could have easily cost the promising defender her leg. Once she regained her health, Dahlkemper proved the setback was only just a bump in the road, playing a crucial role in the USWNT’s back line.
Dunn has emerged as the spark in the group. After the heartbreak of being left off the team’s 2015 World Cup roster, she used the disappointment as fuel to become a more complete player—while remaining a supportive, encouraging teammate known for breathing life into any locker room.
Morgan has gracefully navigated the sometimes tricky terrain that comes with earning a great deal of success so early in a career. Learning from the greats who came before her, she has grown into a fearless leader and earned the opportunity to be the youngest of the team’s captains.
Rapinoe is a shining example of how athletes can have lasting impact off the field, lending her voice to the social causes that resonate with her most. As an openly gay athlete, Rapinoe has become an advocate for numerous LGBTQ organizations. In 2016 she knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick to protest racial inequality and police brutality. And she has consistently spoken out against about the pay inequality that plagues not only female athletes, but women all over the world.
So, just as the 28 women that make up the USWNT united in their fight for fairness, these four unique women came together on the picturesque beaches of a Caribbean island to send a message that goes far beyond looking great in a swimsuit. Their presence in this magazine symbolizes the importance of women everywhere feeling comfortable in their own skin, no matter the hardships they are up against.
“There’s not one woman that I’ve spoken to who hasn’t faced these challenges within her life,” Morgan says. “Some are faced with it more often than others, but we’re always faced with people or companies just tugging on the back of your shirt little by little, holding you back. And we continue to succeed even while being held back. I think that SI Swimsuit gives us an opportunity to feel empowered and to have that sense of inclusion, and I’m very proud to be able express myself within the magazine.”
Each year, SI Swimsuit strives to cultivate an environment where this sense of empowerment and inclusion thrives and expands, pushing the boundaries of the traditional definition of sexy and proving that a woman’s muscles and strength are things to be celebrated.
This year’s issue takes that idea to new heights. As the first openly gay women to appear in SI Swimsuit, Rapinoe helps bolster the notion that how a woman chooses to present her body is not decided based on male approval.
“There’s the assumption that everyone is posing for men, which I’m very much not, and I think probably the majority of women aren’t,” Rapinoe says. “It’s OK to be sexy, it’s OK to wear a swimsuit, it’s OK to want to do that.”
Yet, even as the magazine evolves, it still continues to be looked at through a heavily male lens. Rapinoe feels it’s time to abandon this perspective.
“I think that’s too narrow of a view,” she says. “I think women in general have been so limited and put into such tight boxes for so long and [the idea] that everything in the sexy category is only done for men is just kind of archaic.”
Fans have grown used to seeing these four women in their uniforms, hair pulled back, sweat dripping down their faces. But just as a woman who has made a career for herself modeling bikinis is more than just her sexy side, these members of the USWNT are far from one dimensional.
“I think it’s really important for people to understand that before I was a soccer player, I was a human being, I was a person,” Dunn says. “Ultimately I think it’s important for people to realize, not just us, but women in general, we aren’t just our sport. We are human beings, we are moms, daughters, sisters, everything.”
It’s this very concept that makes the team’s fight for equality so much bigger than their sport. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 28 female soccer players, but it represents a larger statement about the inequities female lawyers, nurses, executives and all working women are up against everyday.
“I don’t think that it’s going to be solved overnight,” Dahlkemper says. “But the time is now to come together to fight for what we think is fair and just. Now is the time to create change, not just talk about it.”
It’s an uphill battle, one that dates back to way before Chastain and her sports bra found themselves outside of the confinements that society has set up for women. But the change is long overdue. For the USWNT, the future is female and the future is now.
See all of Alex Morgan's SI Swimsuit 2019 photos: