Megan Rapinoe has always stood out to me as a strong and fierce player for the U.S. women’s soccer team.

I’ve been watching her play for years, since the women’s FIFA World Cup in 2011, the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and so on. There was always something special about Rapinoe.

Last week, much of the world agreed — it became impossible not to have heard of the athlete. She scored the first goal against the Netherlands during the FIFA World Cup final; she captured the crowd’s attention with her iconic pose: smiling with arms outstretched; she pulled off purple-pink hair.

But even before her ascent to superstar status, Rapinoe caught my attention. Perhaps I was living in the moment as a young soccer player excited to see Rapinoe play and to analyze each move she and her teammates executed. Maybe I loved the adrenaline rush that comes from soccer games.

I knew for sure that Rapinoe excelled as a soccer player, was an excellent team player, and was always motivated when she stepped onto the field.

But there was something much more important about Rapinoe, beyond her soccer skills, that I couldn’t pinpoint — until now.

Seeing Rapinoe’s public appearances during and after the World Cup made me realize: It is far too rare to see such a high-profile woman empowered to say exactly what she thinks without fearing the consequences.

Most recently, she has advocated for equal pay, expressed her disagreement with President Trump, and explained why she will not visit the White House, if invited.

Beyond the fact that she is speaking about these substantive issues and allowing others to engage in deep conversation, what is most significant to me is that she does so unapologetically.

Under stern social rules, women are constantly criticized for not presenting as “proper,” formal, or gentle enough. We are pigeonholed into traditional household, “caretaker” roles, or seen as rude and mean when we disapprove of something. We are afraid to make mistakes, and we are groomed to fear what other people will think of us if we do.

These attitudes, unsurprisingly, have tangible results. A study conducted in 2018 by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) reveals that a woman earned 49 cents for each dollar a man earned from 2001 to 2015. The Forum of Executive Women found that among the 100 largest public companies in the Philadelphia area, women made up just 10 percent of 2017′s top earners, a figure that grew 1 percent in eight years. The Harvard Business Review reported that when women are sexually harassed in the workplace by their male counterparts, they are pressured to remain silent. A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center found that 42% of working women in the U.S. experienced gender discrimination in the workplace.

To be honest, I sometimes fear what other people will think of me or of how they will categorize me if I express disagreement. I feel the need to thoroughly think out a response before speaking up. I don’t always keep quiet, and I am aware of my strong opinions, but I try to frame my information in a way that wouldn’t draw criticism from others, worrying too much what they might think.

Rapinoe does the opposite, speaking and acting freely. Her fearlessness, eloquence, and confidence inspire me most. She is a female athlete and a lesbian woman defying social standards to ensure that her message has real impact.

Rapinoe gives me hope that more women, including myself, will worry less about others’ opinions and worry more that topics often treated like taboos in mainstream platforms — such as the LGBTQ+ community, sexism, and political opposition — are addressed head-on.

She is exactly the person we need to show how women can defy the systems limiting us and inspire other women to be fearless in expressing our opinions.

This past weekend, there was great controversy over a BBC tweet that asked: “Can a pink-haired lesbian be an American hero?” The BBC later deleted the tweet, but it struck me that someone even posed this question, considering the impact of Rapinoe’s powerful defiance.

To me, it’s a simple fact: This pink-haired lesbian is my hero.