Thursday, January 19, 2006
Pride of the Aloha state
Small-town country girl makes it big. That's the buzz right now on the shores of Kahuku, Hawaii, a place where the beach is your backyard and the population is less than 2,500. This is home for Natasha Kai, the 22-year-old currently making her training camp debut with the U.S. women's national team at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
A forward who enjoyed a stellar career at the University of Hawaii (where she garnered Western All Conference Player of the Year recognition an unprecedented three times), Kai won't know until after training camp if she's proved herself worthy of a roster spot at the prestigious Algarve Cup that kicks off March 9 in Portugal. But just receiving an invitation to camp has already been enough in the eyes of Kahuku.
"It's such a big deal because it's so small here and everybody knows everybody," explains Kai's former college teammate and friend Erin Chow. "It's hard for us here to be really competitive and be known [as] a great player because we don't really have much exposure to professional teams or college coaches."
The first female soccer player from the Aloha state to train with the full national team, Kai is under pressure to perform.
"Before I even came out here, everyone's like, 'You better represent Hawaii,'" says Kai who is Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino and white. "It kind of gets to me sometimes, but when it's time to do my job, when it's time to go to practice and play my game, I just leave all that off the field and focus on what I can do to contribute. But you know just getting here and having the experience -- that's priceless."
Coming this far has been the realization of a dream born when Kai first began playing soccer at seven years old and announced that someday she'd play with the Olympic team. Since she arrived on Feb. 6, she's been surrounded by the very faces she watched win gold at Athens in 2004.
"I'm still kind of tripping," she says about playing with idols Abby Wambach, Kristine Lilly and Shannon Boxx. "At first I kind of stayed back and was a follower, but now I feel a lot more comfortable playing with them and proving myself as a player."Head coach Greg Ryan won't divulge his picks for Portugal until after camp ends on Feb. 19, but it's apparent Kai is a strong contender."She's very dynamic," says Ryan. "She's very fast, she's a good goal scorer, she's great in the air. So she brings a lot of qualities to the team that we need. I'd say she's performed exceptionally well."That's great news for Kai's parents, Benny and Sharon, who are anxious to see how their eldest will fare on the mainland. "My mom and dad are my biggest fans, my biggest support," says Kai. "They call me like two or three times a day just to check up on me."Benny, 45, a performer at the Polynesian Cultural Center of Oahu and a Hawaiian history teacher, insists he's not nervous for his daughter, just fiercely proud."We don't have female soccer players go that high," he says. "She's the first ever. She has every capability that they are looking for: she loves challenges, she loves to be the best and she's very competitive."He and Sharon, 46, a sixth-grade teacher, have been witness to Kai's tenacity ever since she was 5 years old and stepped on a jagged glass bottle that badly severed the tendons in her foot. They worried she'd never be able to run again."The doctors told her she wouldn't be able to walk straight. Well, with her cast, she started walking on her toes," says Benny, who was Kai's soccer coach for years, although he's never played the sport.
"Every time she gets hurt, she bounces back within days," adds Chow. "She's sick; she still plays. She has a hurt collarbone; she plays and she's still super fast. It's just amazing, I don't know how she does it. I call her Wolverine from X-Men."
Most of the lasting marks Kai does have on her body are in the form of tattoos that she says she got when undergoing a difficult time in her life. Nine in total, the most recent is a lyric she wrote that is splayed across her right ribs. This ink, along with her multiple piercings, sometimes earns Kai a tough rep she doesn't live up to.
"It's just kind of funny how people stereotype me. Oh, she's rugged, she has all these tattoos -- but inside I'm not like that. Behind all the tattoos, all the piercings, I'm human."
Perhaps, but Kai was immortal at Kahuku High School where her flair on the field managed to turn the eye of the diehard football town. Dubbed the most talented female athlete on the island, she nabbed Gatorade Player of the Year her senior season after leading her team to its first division title in history. When she graduated in 2001, she had also accumulated a long list of accomplishments in track, volleyball, basketball and cross-country.
"I like to keep active," she explains, "I get bored real easy and I just need to go, go, go."
She does, however, love the laid-back, peaceful atmosphere of home where she can spend time with her five younger siblings who range from age 7 to 21, all of whom play soccer. Krisha, the second oldest, played with Natasha in college, and has demonstrated her own considerable talent. It is for these two sisters and three brothers that Kai says she has to always be conscious about setting a good example.
Really, Kai is looked upon as a big sister by many of the children in Hawaii who approach her whenever she is in public. After being supported so loyally by her home state, Kai says she likes talking to kids and giving back to the community. Someday she hopes to be part of a nonprofit that works with wayward youth, and she's known for making appearances at various local soccer and speed camps.
"I just tell them you gotta dream big and set your goals up high. If you work hard enough and if you play with your heart and you're capable, it's going to happen."
It's advice she has faith in as she attempts to reach her own high goal.
"Inside of me I know that I have a place on this team."
Corina Knoll is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.