It’s been a banner year for graduates of Kahuku High School. Viliami Nauahi, class of 2003, walked off the set of Wheel of Fortune with a winning pot of $47,000. Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, class of 1993, headlined a DC inaugural ball and sang for Barack and Michelle. Aaron Francisco and Chris Kemoeatu, both class of 2001, played on opposing teams in the Super Bowl: Aaron for the Arizona Cardinals and Chris for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The school’s own football team, the Red Raiders, secured a divisional crown in a double-overtime victory.
Kahuku High’s greatest recent success story, though, has got to be Natasha Kai, class of 2001, who went to the Beijing Olympics and came home with a gold medal. Along with the gold has come international exposure for the 26-year-old professional soccer player: She starred in Nike commercials. Clips on YouTube called attention to her on-the-field seriousness and off-the-field antics. She was asked to be on Oprah (an invitation she declined). The media fussed over her multiple body piercings and tattoos, which some admired and others derided. Natasha shrugs off the scrutiny. “That’s the way I look,” she says. “People think, ‘She’s a rock star. She’s a gangster.’ I just laugh.”
In the midst of her growing fame, Natasha has stayed true to her roots, loyal to the little town of Kahuku with its population of just 2,100. It sits on O‘ahu’s northeast shore, smack dab between the surf-rich North Shore and the jungle-rich Windward side and largely dismissed (by the unknowing at least) as a coastal backwater with little going for it but sweet corn and shrimp trucks. Natasha, of course, knows better. In media interviews, she thanked loyal neighbors who bought T-shirts, autographed photos and sold plate lunches to send her family to Beijing. With staunch Kahuku pride, she declared herself “a Red Raider for life.”
“Tasha,” as her friends call her, pulls into the parking lot at Ted’s Bakery in a shiny silver Ford F-150. She is fresh from a fishing excursion with her nephew, feeling reinvigorated by the ocean after a two-week training session on the Mainland. Casually, she descends from the spacious cab.
“It’s my new toy. I just lifted it,” she says, looking pleased with the monster pickup’s extra tire clearance. And actually, the truck’s a lot like its driver: a maximum-performance machine, engineered for speed, versatile in function and tricked out for extra style.
Sporting rubber slippers, dark jeans, a red T-shirt and a camouflage-print cap, the 5-foot-8-inch athlete exudes a deliberate yet relaxed chic. Part Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese and Caucasian, Natasha is quintessentially local—a brown-skinned wahine who surfs, dances hula, plays a little ‘ukulele and loves to eat poke (particularly tako [octopus] poke from the Kahuku Superette). She wears bikini tops under her dresses, and she always travels with slippers.
But don’t stereotype her. She has the physicality of a tomboy and the toughness of a “tita,” but she’s really not either of those. She rides dirt bikes, sings karaoke and is scared of the dark. The ink on her body and the piercings in her lip shout “counterculture,” but her life revolves around the most popular sport in the world. “I’m just me,” she says, acknowledging the incongruities. “I’m a Gemini. I have two personalities. There’s a soft side.” That side is literally tattooed above her hip in the words: “Appreciate the Moment. The most precious treasure on earth is MY heart … When I share it with YOU, protect it as if it was your own …”
The love in Natasha’s heart is the product of family and faith. Her parents, three younger brothers, two younger sisters and two nephews (and one on the way) are her unconditional support system, and she again wears her appreciation on her body, in the most prominent of her twenty-one tattoos: Their names grace her right forearm, guarded by an elaborate Polynesian design.
“Her family is everything to her,” says her charismatic father, Benny, a singer, Hawaiian Studies teacher and longtime emcee at the Polynesian Cultural Center. He describes Natasha as a protector of her siblings. The first time younger sister Krisha (also a phenomenal soccer player and now head coach at Kahuku) spent the night at a friend’s house, he recalls, “Tasha cried all night, worried if her sister was OK.”
Long before she was recruited to play at the University of Hawai‘i, Natasha’s exceptional athleticism was evident. As a kid she was a daredevil, pulling “break-your-teeth” tricks on the trampoline and hanging from the plumeria tree’s highest branches. One time, Benny remembers, she climbed up on the garage roof, and when he told her to get down, she jumped without hesitating. “She wasn’t afraid,” he says. “I think that’s what allows her to be so competitive. Her thing was she hated to lose. She would beat boys her age in any sport.”
Throughout high school, Natasha collected all-star and all-state honors like they were mangoes in June—not just in soccer, but in volleyball and basketball, too. As a senior she led the Red Raiders to their first division championship in soccer and was chosen Gatorade Player of the Year. She won state titles for 110-meter hurdles, high jump and long jump and still holds the record for the 300-meter hurdles. The decorated varsity letterwoman could have pursued any of these sports, so why soccer?
She thinks about it for a moment. “Soccer chose me,” she concludes. “When I step on the field, it’s like my sanctuary. God gave me this gift, which was to play soccer, and I share it with the world.”
“Always play with your heart,” a coach of Natasha’s once advised her. “When you play with your heart, you’re unstoppable.” Her record certainly suggests so: In college she was named conference player of the year an unprecedented three times. In 2004 she was the leading scorer for the US Under-21 Women’s National Team. After a trying recovery from shoulder surgery in 2005, she joined the US Women’s National Team in 2006.
Coming off the bench for that team, she scored critical goals in her first two professional games, which secured the 2006 Algarve Cup for the United States and valuable credibility for Natasha. In 2007 she was chosen for the US Women’s World Cup Team.
“Coaches know that I’ll give 110 percent if I play one minute or 90 minutes,” she says. Her disposition has been known to cross the line from passionate to hot-tempered, but when the game’s on the line, she has proved her mettle. “When you only need one goal to win, the team needs that energy to feed off of,” she insists, defending her aggressive style. “I come off the bench as a firecracker.”
Her fervor pushed her all the way to the highest of athletic hopes, the Olympic Games. There, during the quarterfinal game against Canada, Natasha seized the Olympic spotlight, scoring the winning goal in overtime to send the United States into the medal rounds.
The image of the crowd that filled the Workers’ Stadium for the gold-medal game remains vivid in her mind. “There were 1,000 Americans and a hundred million people from everywhere else,” she describes. “It was us against the world!” Defying the fans’ expectations, the United States prevailed against Brazil. For Natasha it was the realization of a dream she had pursued since she was a small girl of 5. “When we got the gold medal locked up, I felt complete,” she says. “It felt so good just to win, especially since we were the underdog. I cried like a baby.” That night she slept with the gold medal around her neck.
Natasha racked up some other unforgettable moments at the Olympics: Kobe Bryant throwing her a shaka from the skybox. Trading tattoo stories with David Beckham at the gold-medal party. Watching Usain Bolt sprint to a gold medal in the Bird’s Nest Stadium. Vince Vaughn arranging for her to fly home first class.
“When we walked out and heard our national anthem and saw our flag blowing above all the others, it was every feeling in the world, every memory, good and bad, the whole emotional roller coaster,” she says, reflecting on the experience. “It took me twenty years to accomplish my dream. In those twenty years, I didn’t let people tell me what I can’t do.” She describes the tattoo that now stretches across her shoulder blades. It shows the Chinese characters for “believe” resting in God’s hands. She shares the mantra the US team repeated throughout the competition: “If we believe in each other, then we’re going to win.”
In March, Natasha moved to New Jersey to play for the New York/New Jersey Sky Blue FC, one of seven teams that comprise the Women’s Professional Soccer League. But the Kahuku girl will always look to her roots for leverage. She intends to do the Red Raiders proud. “Now that I know what it feels like to win,” she says, “I want to win everything I do.” HH