“‘Opioid crisis’ might seem like an overused buzzword, but I have a very personal relationship with it. I was a victim of it in college. The overprescription and misuse of opioids in sports is a real crisis.”
Rachael Rapinoe has some thoughts on the “status quo” and conventional pain-management approach for injured athletes (i.e., prescription opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin). As a collegiate and eventually professional soccer player, she herself experienced her fair share of injuries, and thus the prescriptions—and addictions—that came with them. To boot, her brother experienced heroin addiction (another opioid). In short… “It's really messed up,” she told Svn Space. And it’s time for athletes and patients in pain to have better options.
So when a friend introduced her to CBD—something that can potentially take the place of opioids, with significantly fewer risks—Rapinoe had a much deeper interest in what this plant could do than your average wellness enthusiast would.
Today, Rapinoe is the co-founder and CEO of the sport-specific CBD brand Mendi. That friend who introduced her to CBD is now her co-founder: Kendra Freeman, a 20-year veteran of the cannabis industry, as well as an advocate, farmer, and athlete herself (as Rapinoe put it, a “soccer friend”).
A lot of business-minded people are getting into the Green Rush or Green Boom as many are calling it, but the “why” for these two women isn’t about capitalizing on a trend, it’s about changing and saving lives.
“Ultimately we want to improve people’s lives,” Rapinoe told Svn Space. “But our ‘whys’ are different; Kendra is a huge advocate for cannabis, working in the space for two decades as a farmer. As a gay woman of color, she has seen first hand how people of color have been oppressed [within the context of cannabis] while white [people] make money off of it.” Freeman’s vision, from all of the aforementioned, centers on social justice and equal opportunities.
As for Rapinoe, she wants to see the stigma of cannabis lifted in the world of sports, all while helping to fight against the overprescription and overuse of opioids.
How Mendi Wants to Change the Game
Growing up in the “Just Say No to Drugs” era (as many of us did), Rapinoe believes this deeply-ingrained stigma is one of the biggest barriers to entry when it comes to athletes using cannabis in lieu of opioids. Her approach with Mendi is two parts: education and changing habits.
“Normalizing [CBD] is a huge piece of this,” she said, “Showing that it’s backed by science.” Rapinoe is no stranger to science, either. With a Master’s degree in health and exercise science, she has spent the past six years “becoming an expert in performance training,” as well as assembling a medical superteam for her brand. “There’s a ton of data out there that justifies cannabis as pain management. It’s now about getting [that data] in front of these athletes.”
Rapinoe herself experienced the stigma and fear that comes with nearly a century of cultural propaganda. “I had three and a half years of contemplation before starting Mendi,” said Rapinoe. “Kendra first approached me in 2017, right before the hemp Farm Bill passed, and I said, ‘Absolutely not; I’m not getting into cannabis.’”
“It was miseducation on my end,” she told Svn Space. “I had to shift my perception of opiates versus cannabis.” Like many other athletes, she noted she was more comfortable taking a prescription—even one as dangerous as an opioid—rather than smoking a joint, or even just taking CBD. It was when she realized that athletes were using cannabis not to get stoned, but as a recovery tool, that her perspective shifted.
Next up is making whole-plant pain management part of the everyday athlete routine;
“Teaching players, medical practitioners, and professionals that instead of Advil or ibuprofen, sub in cannabis,” said Rapinoe. “It’s not just a beta blocker, it’s a whole plant; it’s better for you in the long run.”
Joking about the “21 days to make a habit” adage, she believes if athletes start to incorporate CBD into their recovery regularly, these habits will shift and lives will change for the better.
Beyond the Field: Recovery
Apart from her two-pronged approach to changing the game of cannabis in sports, Rapinoe aims to help athletes and fitness enthusiasts improve their lives with one of CBD’s overarching purposes: recovery.
And in her mind, CBD plays a small but crucial “supporting role” in the recipe that is ideal athletic recovery.
“The more recovered you are, the better you perform,”
she told Svn Space. “What the studies are showing, what we’re seeing in performance metrics and tools, is that [performance is] not so much about training anymore—everyone’s going to put in the hard work, and you have to stay fit all year long—but that the better recovered you are for every workout, the better you perform.”
Noting that even a “one percent” improvement in recovery is beneficial, whether it’s from extra sleep, less inflammation, or a calmer and less anxious mind, she believes that CBD can be that little bit to take athletes over the top.
“Top tier trainers and athletes are all doing cryo and physical therapy and massage therapy, but what you put in your body is so important, too.” She emphasizes that CBD is neither a cure all nor a snake oil, but rather a supportive player in a rigorous recovery regimen.
A League of Their Own: Women in Cannabis
Though cannabis has historically been a male-dominated industry, many women have been flocking to it in recent years. And like the hemp industry, sports have also been traditionally centered on and run by men as well. But for Rapinoe, who is now in both industries at once, that’s not something she focuses on—perhaps a lesson for all of us.
“Being a female CEO, I get it, I know that two percent of female startups get funding—we were fortunate enough to get funding—and I’m sure I’ve been affected by it in second- and third-hand ways I haven’t noticed, but I try to not focus on it,” she said. “I only know what it’s like to be a woman, and I only know what it’s like to be me. I’m an inherently optimistic person to a fault; I’m aware of the statistics, but I don’t consider myself one of them.”
That optimism is one half of her recipe for success.
“I tend to focus on all the exciting things that I do have around me and my strengths,”
she told Svn Space. Focusing on disadvantages may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Rapinoe has avoided that by lasering in on bright-sided possibilities.
As for the second half? Ask for help when you need it. “For things that I’m not good at, I make sure to bring in the right person,” she said. “You can’t do everything alone. You need an incredible team, incredible people around you.”
“I learned that the hard way in my last company, but with Mendi I’ve been able to bring all these relationships with me and really build a team that champions me and champions our vision. I believe in strength in numbers. I never feel alone in this as a woman. I believe Mendi will be successful because of the people who are surrounding us and guiding us.”
Written by: Dominique Astorino