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w/WNT Forward Natasha Kai

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As close as we can tell, 29 states have produced players who have earned at least one cap for the U.S. Women’s National Team. That number could move to 30 this week. As the only uncapped player on this year’s Algarve Cup roster, forward Natasha Kai will make history for her home state if she gets into a game and becomes the first-ever player from Hawai’i to play for the full U.S. Women’s National Team.

Hawaii is a place of beautiful, lava-covered landscapes, lush jungle, rolling sugar cane fields, juicy pineapple, beautiful white beaches and tasty waves.

It’s paradise.

But for all the amazing things that Hawaii has to offer, the 50th state has never produced a player who has earned a cap for the full U.S. Women’s National Team.

That may change during the 2006 Algarve Cup as forward Natasha Kai of Kahuku, Oahu, will suit up for the United States.

Like most players from the 31 states that have yet to turn out a player for the U.S. Women’s National Team (a list that also includes Wyoming, North Dakota and Mississippi, to name a few), Kai has overcome some steep odds to get where she is today.

She did not have the benefit of a traditional youth soccer environment that players from California, Texas, Florida and other soccer hotbeds enjoy. She played just one year in the Olympic Development Program and never played for a U.S. Youth National Team before getting her first shot with the U.S. U-21s in 2004.

Kai was born and raised on Oahu’s famous North Shore and had a better chance of becoming a professional surfer than a soccer player. Luckily for the USA, she was out surfing three-footers one day, took one look at a 10-footer suddenly rolling towards her, prayed she wouldn’t die, and somehow got back to the beach. That ended her career as a big wave surfer.

She describes the neighborhood in which she grew up as “out in the country.” There were no malls, no movie theatres and no suburban soccer fields, just corn fields and shrimp farms. It’s very difficult to play soccer while dodging corn stalks or stepping on shrimp.

Kai started playing club soccer only when she entered high school, but that necessitated an hour drive to the windward side of the island to play for Kailua AA. She was also a guest player on occasion for the Leahi Soccer Club, and got to play in the Surf Cup in San Diego. Still, the opportunities to play at a high level were scarce.

In fact, after high school, Kai was pretty sure she was not only done with soccer, but her formal education as well.

“I got some offers, but to be honest, I had a negative attitude about going off to college, a bad attitude,” said Kai, who also admitted apathy towards her academics. “I just didn’t want to play anymore. The only motivation I had was to play sports. That kept me in school.”

A remarkable athlete with tremendous speed and leaping ability, Kai played volleyball, ran cross-country and track and was a point guard on the basketball team at Kahuka High School.

On the track, she ran the 100 and 200 meter dashes, along with the 100 and 300 meter hurdles (for which she set the state record as a freshman). She also competed in the high jump, long jump and triple jump. Her best high jump was 5 feet, 6 inches, still a Hawaii state record.

But as high school came to an end, an unmotivated Kai decided she needed some time to sort out her life’s direction. She took a year off - from school, from soccer, from life - and didn’t touch a ball at all during that time. She went surfing, hung out with her friends, and got a job working at BYU-Hawaii in the cafeteria, where she helped wash dishes, serve food and cook in the bakery.

While she enjoyed her time away from school and soccer, after a year, she knew that it was time to “get my act together.” After some soul searching, she came to the realization that she was ready for college, and the University of Hawaii.

But it was only a college career that she was focused on.

“In Hawaii, there is only high school and college, that’s it,” said Kai, who would become the all-time leading scorer for Hawaii and the Western Athletic Conference. “In the back of my head there was always doubt about ever taking soccer beyond college. You pretty much have to go to the mainland and a top-notch school to get noticed for the national team. I thought there was really no way anyone from Hawaii was going to get an opportunity.”

That all changed after a stellar sophomore year that saw her pound in 29 goals and lead the nation in scoring. That performance raised eyebrows even on the mainland, where then-U.S. Under-21 National Team head coach Chris Petrucelli called her into training camp at the beginning of 2004.

That year, she led the U-21s in scoring with 12 goals, with six coming in international play, as she helped the USA win the 2004 Nordic Cup in Iceland. She scored three times in that tournament, including a pair against Germany that pushed the U.S. through to the title game.

Her performance with the U-21s was an amazing accomplishment. A girl from Hawaii had come together with the top female college players in her country and done more than hold her own.

“I was really nervous, because it was my first time (with the national team),” said Kai, who speaks with a fairly thick Hawaiian accent and sometimes, to her teammates’ amusement, drops into the local Pidgeon English. “I was not comfortable around anyone. I was kind of left by myself and I was kind of the runt in camp being from Hawaii. I really had to prove myself. At first, I was so nervous that I was messing up all the time. Coach Chris called me in my room and he said, ‘I know you’re nervous, but you need to prove to me you belong here. Just go out there and show me what you’ve got.’ I just basically had to play to my strengths, my speed and scoring, and show the coaches and the players what I had to offer and why I was chosen to come to the camp.”

Her newly launched national team dream was dealt a setback when she fractured her clavicle in November of 2004 during the last two minutes of her final college game at the WAC championships. Then, called back into the U-21s in January of 2005, she hurt her shoulder badly again, also at the end of the last game on the closing day of camp. This time, she needed surgery to repair shredded ligaments. They also put screws in her shoulder. That ended her year and maybe, she thought, her national team career.

But Kai possesses athletic gifts that are not soon forgotten, and U.S. U-21 head coach Jill Ellis called her into a training camp in January of 2006. She did well enough to earn Ellis’ recommendation to U.S. head coach Greg Ryan, who invited her into her first Women’s National Team camp in February. With a strong performance at camp, she then made the Algarve Cup roster, and is now on the brink of making history.

“I feel honored to be the first one from Hawaii,” said Kai, a free spirit with nine tattoos and a personality emblematic of Hawaiians’ friendliness and zest for life. “I am representing Hawaii and the United States and of course, that means a lot. If I get to play, it will put a big smile on my face, but it’s not about me. I want to do well for this team, this country and my state.”

While her game currently resembles the freshly cut sugar cane of her home – raw, but with some tantalizing sweet qualities - Kai is still adjusting to the speed and sophistication of the international game. But if she does get into a match, it will be proof that players can make the national team through untraditional means, as long as they have unusual talents.

“Every time I talk to kids at camps and clinics in Hawaii, I tell them that they can look at me as a role model, but I’m just opening the doorway and the pathway for coaches to see what kind of talent there is on the islands,” said Kai. “My thing is that you have to dream big and set big goals. My goal was always to play for the national team, even though I didn’t know if I’d ever make it. Right now, I’m living my dream. Sometimes you can get off track in life, but if you have the heart, and belief in yourself, you never know what can happen.”

It's a good lesson, not only for little girls from Honolulu, but also for young players with big dreams from towns like of Laramie, Fargo and Biloxi.