Rachael Rapinoe — twin sister to Megan Rapinoe and also an accomplished soccer player — always saw CBD as a stoner thing. Now, as the Co-Founder of Mendi, a brand that formulates hemp-derived CBD products for athletes, she is convinced the compound is a wonder drug for athletes who need to recover from injury.
Rapinoe, the former NCAA soccer champ and captain of the Portland Pilots, the women’s soccer team at the University of Portland, found her true calling five years ago when another athlete introduced her to the health and wellness benefits of cannabis (CBD and THC). “It was the first time I had seen people use these products outside of stoner culture or a party,” she says. “It was being used as a recovery tool.” After she started to use cannabis for the health benefits, she saw an opportunity to create a trusted CBD brand for athletes and Mendi was born.
Cannabis has many different compounds, but the most well-known are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is the psychoactive compound in cannabis (it gets you high), and CBD is the calming compound, which can relax your nervous system and alleviate anxiety. It has no psychoactive effect (won’t get you high). You can find products made from pure CBD or those that include some amount of THC — trace amounts of THC are known to activate CBD, strengthening its effect. Many people who use CBD therapeutically use products that contain only trace amounts of THC, and, like pure CBD products, these don’t have a psychoactive effect.
The benefits of CBD aren’t just the stuff of stoner lore — there’s plenty of science to back it up. In a 2007 study from Pharm Ideas Research & Consulting Inc., CBD was shown to alleviate pain. It can also reduce anxiety, according to a 2019 survey by Elsevier.
Rapinoe’s upbeat, friendly, can-do attitude makes her shine as spokesperson and CEO of Mendi. “Rachael is super engaging and has such a likable personality. She has high integrity and that real person kind of feel. She’s just salt of the earth,” says Kendra Freeman, Mendi’s co-founder.
Rachael grew up in Redding, CA, a suburb in Northern California. She is the youngest of five kids, including her fraternal twin sister Megan. She is quick to point out she’s the older twin. “I had two roles in the family, so we were the babies, but as the older twin, I’m an older sister because in ‘twin world’ anything more than a second is like a whole year.”
The two were competitive, but in a constructive way. “I think it really drove us to be the best that we could be both on and off the field or court.”
In 2004, the Rapinoe twins started their freshman year at the University of Portland and played for the Portland Pilots, winning a National Championship in 2005. While the team was successful, Rachael was chronically injured. She had severe anemia (iron deficiency) that went undiagnosed for a year and a half, although it’s not unusual in female athletes. According to a review of scientific articles, female athletes are at more risk of increased iron loss because of menstruation and the effects of intensive training. Iron is essential for bone health and the immune system, so anemia can lead to recurring bone injuries and sickness.
Rachael went through several rounds of iron infusions and which eventually gave her more energy. During her senior year playing for the Portland Pilots, she injured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The ACL, which connects the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shinbone), stabilizes your knee joint. Rehabilitation from ACL reconstruction surgery is painful and can take up to nine months and involves physical therapy to strengthen the knee’s muscles. Because of the severe pain post-operation, doctors usually prescribe pain medication like opiates.
Rachael was 21 when she was first prescribed opiates by her doctor. Even though she was never addicted to the medication, she recognizes the inherent risks of prescribing opiates for pain relief. “When you’re in high school and college, the chance of you becoming addicted to those pills or misusing them is very high.” Rachael says, “You have to be really careful with athletes using opiates when you’re prescribing them.” According to a 2018 study, 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and four to six percent of people who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.
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Even though her college soccer career was plagued with musculoskeletal issues, Rapinoe was still in love with the sport. After graduating from the University of Portland, she played professional soccer in Iceland for a year, but she fractured her ankle when she returned to the States. After four knee surgeries and ankle surgery, Rachael retired from professional soccer at 26 years old.
Without soccer, Rapinoe had to redefine herself. “All of a sudden, you go from being this elite athlete to then being a low-level entry employee and that is tough, I think for a lot of athletes,” she explains. “You know that you’re capable of more, but you don’t have the work experience that a lot of companies are looking for.”
In 2012, she returned to the University of Portland to get her Masters of Science in health and exercise. “Although I loved working in sports, I wanted to be in the health and wellness fitness side of it where I’m making products that actually help people’s bodies,” she says.
Rapinoe met Kendra Freeman, who would end up becoming Mendi’s co-founder, in 2016 through a mutual friend. Freeman had started growing marijuana in Humboldt County and moved to Southern Oregon to start Oso Verde Farms, an organic cannabis farm. She spoke to Rapinoe about starting a hemp CBD line of edibles that were tailored to athletes.
“Rachael told me the story about how athletes put their bodies on the line for their career and that they do not get a choice in how they recover with natural remedies,” Freeman shares. “When their careers are over, athletes are left with a huge issue, and often they are left with addiction. I knew the benefits of CBD and I knew that cannabis could help them.”
Since CBD was prohibited by federal law at the time, Rachael was hesitant. “Kendra said, ‘We should make a sports brand selling edibles.’ I wasn’t really interested in it, but we just kept in touch and continued to discuss it.”
Meanwhile, 2018 ending up being a massive year for the cannabis industry. The Farm Bill legalized hemp (cannabis plant with less than .3% of THC) and made it possible to transport it over state borders. Also, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from its banned substances list. Because of these milestones, Rapinoe knew that she could create a trusted brand that could be a leader in the sports cannabis market.
With a health science background, connections to professional athletes, and new knowledge of cannabis, Racheal co-founded Mendi in 2018 with Kendra and graphic designer Brett Schwager.
In January 2019, Mendi participated in Females to the Front, a cannabis accelerator program that empowers women in the cannabis industry. After graduating from the program, Mendi launched their online store with 3 THC-free products — a salve stick, gummies, and vegan gel caps.
Rapinoe wants Mendi to be a values-driven company, one that champions equality and equity by sponsoring female athletes first before partnering with male athletes. “The disparity of revenue and visibility between male and female sports is not due to a lack of talent or entertainment on either side, it is due to a lack of investment on the female side,” Rapinoe says. “If Mendi is going to help build a brighter future for sports, it starts by investing in women out of the gate.”
Not surprisingly, their first sponsored athlete, or “athlete ambassador,” was Megan Rapinoe, who also serves as a board member. Other athlete ambassadors include four-time Olympic gold medal and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) player Sue Bird and 2016 WNBA MVP, Nneka Ogwumike. They have also partnered with two teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (NSWL) — the Utah Royals FC and the North Carolina Courage.
In a press release about the NWSL partnerships, Mendi stated, “It’s no secret that male players make more money than females. We are making a stand to say that the NWSL is deserving of the same investment opportunity, putting our money where our mouth is, and challenging other companies to do the same.”
Mendi has also donated a portion of their profits to NAACP PDX, Black Lives Matter, and Cascade Aids Projects.
Rapinoe admits that one of the most challenging aspects of being a CEO is raising money for the company. “I’m an exercise and health specialist, I’m not necessarily a CFO, so that was hard, but we crushed it.” Mendi’s online store has expanded to include bath salts, tinctures, creams, massage oils, and apparel. When asked if Mendi products will eventually include THC, Rachael responds, “Eventually, but we won’t have that until the end of 2021 or 2022.”
As for Mendi’s future, Rapinoe sees the company as a leader in the sports cannabis market. “I definitely see us disrupting the pain management industry,” she says. “Our ultimate goal is to be the most trusted sports brand and be a household name.”
Deana Bianco is a writer based in Colorado. Her work has been featured in SELF, VICE, Billboard, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter.
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