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[SPORTS] Natasha Kai - 1st Hawaiian Female Selected to U.S. National Soccer Team

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  • madchinaman
    From North Shore to National Team By Leila Wai Reach Leila Wai at lwai@honoluluadvertiser.com. Advertiser Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 28, 2006
      From North Shore to National Team
      By Leila Wai
      Reach Leila Wai at lwai@....
      Advertiser Staff Writer
      http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2006/Jul/14/sp/FP607140343.
      html


      -

      In February, Kai, a former Kahuku and University of Hawai'i soccer
      standout, became the first female from Hawai'i selected to the U.S.
      National Team, joining an elite group of athletes who will compete
      in the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.

      -


      Natasha Kai has yet to grasp what she has accomplished.

      "I don't know, I don't think it hit me, I don't think it will ever
      hit me," Kai said.

      In February, Kai, a former Kahuku and University of Hawai'i soccer
      standout, became the first female from Hawai'i selected to the U.S.
      National Team, joining an elite group of athletes who will compete
      in the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.

      "When I'm in the locker room, that's when I get nervous. When I see
      my uniform with my name on the back, it gives me chills," Kai
      said. "But once I put it on, it's business."

      Kai, who scored three goals in five games with the national team,
      will make her national television debut in a game against Sweden
      tomorrow, the first domestic game of the year for the USA. The game
      will be televised on ESPN2 at noon Hawai'i time.

      At times, Kai is still amazed to be playing alongside former role
      models in forwards Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach.

      "I'm just playing soccer. I don't know. It's kind of my job now. I'm
      a professional. It's weird," she said.

      She has been training with the team in residency camp, where players
      practice nearly every day at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
      Since joining the team six months ago, she has impressed teammates
      and coaches.

      "The thing I like about her is that she's young and fresh," said
      Lilly, who holds the world record with 308 international appearances
      for the USA. "She's got this look in her eye like, 'Oh, I'll do
      anything.' She has no fear.

      "You see that when she goes up for 50-50 balls in the air. She's a
      great header, and her timing on the ball is great, so she adds that
      to our game. She's still young and has a lot to learn, but what
      she's contributed so far has been great."

      Lilly pointed to Kai's "great speed and great ability in the air,"
      and how both would aid her in scoring goals and getting behind
      defenses.

      Even in her short time with the team, Kai has improved in most
      aspects of her game.

      "I've grown 10 times better as a player. I see the game way better.
      I understand that being just five inches to the right or left puts
      me in a better position to score," Kai, 23, said. "I know when I
      need to make a near-post run, or far-post run, make a slanting run
      or take a player on. It makes me such a better player.

      "My touches on the ball are good; I just feel like I improved a lot."

      A 'GIFTED' ATHLETE

      One thing about Kai's game that was already near peak levels — and
      caught the eye of U.S. National Team coach Greg Ryan in the first
      place — was her athletic ability.

      "She's a great athlete, great in the air, very gifted in terms of
      her goal-scoring," he said.

      It was her goal-scoring ability that stood out in her previous
      stints with the University of Hawai'i and U.S. Under-21 National
      team, and was the "main reason," she was given a chance with the
      national team.

      "She's done it with UH and U-21's, and we wanted to see if she could
      be productive with the women's team as well," Ryan said. "So far
      she's done very good, scoring against France, Denmark and Japan this
      year. She still has a long ways to go in terms of personal
      development and chemistry with the team. But she has the unique
      ability of being a true goal scorer."

      Ryan set goals for Kai — to improve her fitness level and gain a
      better understanding of the system the team employs.

      "We hope her role is increasing in size over time," he said. "She
      has to get herself to a higher level of fitness to get more minutes.
      So far her role has been sparking team and getting goals."

      SHE'S GOT AIR

      Lilly compared Kai to soccer great Michelle Akers' ability in the
      air. Akers retired from the team in 2000 and was named the FIFA
      Women's Player of the Century as the top female soccer player in the
      world.

      Lilly said of Kai: "She has that presence that Michelle had.
      Obviously she's still young so she can grow into it more, but if
      there's a situation where she's going up for a head ball, teams
      better watch out."

      Even Nike seemingly acknowledged her potential with the national
      team, signing her a week ago to a contract that could eventually
      find her on television commercials and print advertisements.

      Kai earns a salary with the national team and is comfortable enough
      financially that she doesn't need a second job.

      "I don't have to but should to keep myself out of trouble," she
      said. "So let them know back home, if anyone wants to hire me ..."

      According to the Associated Press, players in the residency camp can
      earn from $50,000 to $70,000. The U.S. Soccer Federation has the
      option of hiring up to four more players at $30,000 per year and can
      bring in players to camp on a trial basis for up to six weeks.

      Kai's newly acquired income has allowed her to change her lifestyle
      in a way that is beneficial for her career.

      "I'm taking care of my body, eating healthy," said Kai, whose diet
      consists of salads, vegetables and chicken. "Now I have money to buy
      a healthy meal. Not just McDonald's 99-cent plain double
      cheeseburger. That's what I used to eat all the time."

      It also gives her the opportunity to rent a house in Redondo Beach —
      "right by the beach. Perfect." — about 20 minutes away from the
      Home Depot Center. She lives with teammates Cat Whitehill and Aly
      Wagner.

      GIVING BACK TO HAWAI'I

      She only will be in residency until September. She plans to return
      to Hawai'i at its conclusion.

      Kai will dedicate some of her time at home as the coach for the
      Kahuku High girls soccer team.

      "It's going to be hard for me, but there is so much raw talent on
      the North Shore and Hawai'i. I want to give back to the community,"
      she said.

      Although she will be flying in and out, with training camps from
      September through April, and tournaments in between, "I think it
      will be perfect," she said.

      Always on the back of her mind is the Women's World Cup in Beijing
      next year, and the 2008 Olympics, also in Beijing. She knows that
      making the team this year puts her closer to her ultimate goal of
      playing in those tournaments.

      "It is a dream come true. I'm not saying I'm going to make the team,
      but my chances are getting closer," she said. "I'm dedicating my
      time and energy to my teammates and the country to bring back the
      gold."

      Ryan said it is possible for Hawai'i to get more players on the
      national team "if (Hawai'i) produces more like Natasha Kai. You can
      find national team players just about coming from any state. In some
      ways, and certainly in Tasha's case, she was just born with talent.
      It didn't matter what state she was born in."

      TAKING CHARGE

      Kai took an unconventional route to the national team, gaining
      attention during her All-American career at the University of
      Hawai'i, unlike others who were on the radar since high school.

      "I think I took it as a challenge. I love challenges and proving
      people wrong," Kai said. "I did come in nervous, going up against
      people I watched in the Olympics. I needed to prove myself to them
      and the coaching staff. At first I hid in my shell, but then I
      thought 'Screw it.' Coaches brought me in for a reason. I wanted
      them to know I would back them up in a close game."

      Kai's selection to the national team came at the right time, with a
      core group of veteran players — Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy —
      choosing to retire, paving the way for a fresh crop of players.

      "It was just a new look for the team, and Natasha was a part of that
      new look," Lilly said. "And she's made an impact since she's been on
      it."

      *

      NATASHA KAI

      Hometown: Kahuku

      Position: Forward

      Height: 5 feet 8

      Birthdate: May 22, 1983

      Youth soccer club: Leahi Soccer Club

      High school: Kahuku (2001)

      College: University of Hawai'i, 2002-2005

      Fun facts: First Hawai'i native selected to the U.S. National Soccer
      Team. ... Kai holds the state high school meet record in the high
      jump (5 feet, 5.5 inches, 1999)

      CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

      2002: Freshman at UH—Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year,
      all-WAC first team. Soccer Buzz Freshman All-America third team and
      Soccer Buzz Freshman All-West Region First Team.

      2003: Sophomore at UH—WAC Player of the Year, all-WAC first team.
      Soccer Buzz third team All-American. Led nation in scoring with 29
      goals.

      2004: Junior at UH—Picked as a semifinalist for the Missouri
      Athletic Club's Hermann Trophy, awarded to college soccer's national
      player of the year. All-WAC first-team selection ... Was the first
      player from Hawai'i selected to the U.S. Under-21 Women's National
      Team. Led the squad with 12 goals.

      2005: WAC Offensive Player of the Year, all-WAC first team. Scored a
      team-high 15 goals.

      2006: Invited to U.S. Women's National Team training camp in January
      and was named to its roster in February. Scored goals against Japan,
      Denmark and France.
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