As a 5-year-old watching the 1988 Olympics on television, Kahuku alumna Natasha Kai told her dad she'd play in the Olympic Games someday.
‘Country girl’ Kai fulfills a dream
She didn't quite understand what the Olympics were all about while watching the 1988 Seoul Games on TV with her father. After all, Natasha "Tasha" Kai was only 5.
Ninth in a series by staff writer Cindy Luis profiling the Islands' athletes competing in the Summer Olympics from Aug. 6-24
But what Kai understood was that these were the best of the best in the entire athletic world. She knew that one day she'd be there.
"I remember telling my dad that I was going to play in the Olympics," Kai said. "Of course, in my wildest dreams I never thought it would come through like this. I'm just a country girl from Kahuku who's living her dream.
"I'm really excited to be part of this amazing group of women and fulfill a dream I've had since I was a kid. Just being able to represent my country and my state at an Olympics is humbling and a big thrill."
One of the most decorated athletes to come out of Kahuku High (12 letters in five sports) and the University of Hawaii, the three-time Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year has been with the U.S. Women's National Team since 2006 at the Algarve Cup. In Portugal, she became only the fourth U.S. player to notch goals in her first two caps (international competitions).
» Name: Natasha Kai
» Birthdate: May 22, 1983
» High school: Kahuku (2001)
» College: Hawaii (2001-04)
» Hometown: Kahuku
» Position: Forward
» Olympics: First
» Competition dates: Aug. 6-21
» Career highlights: Made her full Women's National Team debut at the 2006 Algarve Cup in Portugal, scoring in her first two games against Denmark and France, both as a substitute. ... Became just the fourth player in U.S. WNT history to score in her first two caps. ... Leading scorer for the U.S. Under-21 team in 2004. ... First player in WAC history to earn three Player of the Year (2002-04) awards. ... Owns the WAC career shots record (446) and is second in goals (72) and points (162). ... Led the nation in goals scored (29) as a sophomore. ... Earned 12 letters at Kahuku in soccer, track, volleyball, basketball and cross country. ... A two-time state champion and record holder in the 300 hurdles and won state titles in the 110 hurdles, high jump and long jump.
» Fun facts: Of her 19 tattoos, one is a message inscribed above her right hip: "Appreciate the moment. The most precious treasure is MY heart. When I share it with YOU, protect it, as if it was your own." ... Her most recent additions are stars on the back of her neck that resemble the stars on the U.S. uniform.
» Tomorrow: Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, volleyball
The forward has come through big ever since, particularly at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Mexico. She had two key goals against Mexico, then added two more vs. Costa Rica that ensured the U.S. its fourth consecutive appearance in the Olympics.
The 25-year-old Kai represents the next generation in U.S. women's soccer and has been the face of the team in several commercials and YouTube videos. She got to design a shoe on NikeiD as well as give a peak into her upbringing with an introduction to Hawaii, Kahuku style, showing off her work-in-progress musical talent on an ukulele made by her dad, Benny.
"The North Shore is like nowhere else," she said. "I'm blessed to be from a place like this. And to go from here to China ... it's been such a great opportunity."
This is Kai's second trip to China in eight months. The U.S. went 3-0 at the Four Nations Tournament in January, a trip that several of Kai's family members went on, all wearing T-shirts that read "Made in Hawaii" on the back.
Asked if her family was coming again, she replied, "You know it. Mom, dad, sister, two brothers and my friend Ashley will be there."
Kai scored the lone goal of the 1-0 win over Brazil on July 16 in San Diego, her header from just inside the 6-yard box coming in the 85th minute. It was her 12th goal of the year and 20th of her international career. She was named player of the match.
It was the final U.S. appearance before the Olympics, as well as the final match for leading scorer Abby Wambach, who broke her leg in the 31st minute. With forward Wambach gone, the team will look to Kai to help pick up the scoring.
"Kai is fantastic in many ways," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "She's different and she's unpredictable and very good in the air."
Kai said she will miss Wambach.
"Abby has taught me a lot," said Kai, one of three forwards on the squad. "She has made me a better player and prepared me to play at the international level.
"It's sad that she won't be here on the field, but we have some other great forwards, and a lot of great players on this team. I know we have what it takes to be successful."
The U.S. has been training in China since July 24, as well as doing some sightseeing that included the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Team USA opens with Norway on Wednesday (1:45 a.m. Hawaii time tomorrow) in Qinhuangdao, takes on Japan on Saturday, and then New Zealand.
The U.S. has won two golds (1996, '04) and a silver (2000) in its three Olympic appearances
"I'd say (the gold-medal) chances are pretty good," Kai said. "Of course, there are some great teams in the tournament, but it's up to us to perform up to our best abilities. If we do that, we have a chance to win and be the best in the world. We just have to bring it.
"There are 12 teams (for the first time in the Olympics) and we've played all of them at some point over the last few years. They are all great teams and that's why they are here. Our next game is our biggest competition and that starts with Norway."
Kai was one of 10 athletes chosen for the "Got Milk?" ad that debuted last month in Sports Illustrated. She is seated in front of Castle High graduate Bryan Clay, a favorite for gold in the decathlon.
"I didn't even know he was going to be there," she said. "I ran track with him (in high school) and I hadn't seen him in a while, so it was good to catch up. It's great that we have such a strong representation from Hawaii in the Olympics and hopefully we can win some medals to bring to Honolulu."
Kai, who has 19 tattoos, is considering another one that would commemorate her Olympic experience.
"I have some ideas, but I can't commit to anything right now," she said. "We'll see after the Games.
"This is such a great opportunity not only to represent Hawaii but the United States. It gives hopes to the little kids in Hawaii to be able to dream big and hopefully one day be able to walk this same path."