US SoccerUS Soccer
U-20 WNT

Pretty Name, Dynamic Game


She hails from a land-locked state and is more used to seeing mountains than the ocean. Although the biggest body of water near her is filled with salt, there are no sea creatures. And she owns a snowboard, not a surfboard.

Still, Kealia Ohai’s name evokes images of white sand, crashing waves, swaying palm trees and light tropical breezes.

The Salt Lake City, Utah, native, whose name is pronounced Kay-LEE-uh, is named after a beach on one of the most stunningly beautiful islands in perhaps the USA’s most beautiful state, Hawaii.

Ohai’s father, Ben, was born in Hawaii. He moved to California when he was 10 and then later attended BYU (he was on the wrestling team), where he met her mother, Cindy, and he gave the third of their four daughters a name that is an ode to his upbringing.

“I always joke with my parents because I used to be mad at them for naming me something that is so hard to pronounce,” said Ohai, whose sisters Cambria, Megan (who won an NCAA soccer title at USC in 2007) and Aubrey got off a bit easier. “It was embarrassing as a little kid because no one, especially my teachers, could say my name correctly, but I’ve grown to love it. Nowadays, if someone struggles, I just skip the awkwardness and say, ‘just call me K.’”

Kealia Beach is on the northeast side of Kauai, a small but popular spot for surfers and boogie boarders. In the winter, it can have powerful waves, strong currents and a nasty riptide.

Kealia the person and the player shares some of the same qualities with her namesake half-mile stretch of sand. Off the field, she’s got a Hawaiian attitude, easy going and carefree. On the field, she more resembles the crashing surf, running the wings for the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team with tremendous speed and intensity, eager to initiate wave after wave of attacks at the opponent’s goal.

“When I’m not playing soccer I’m more relaxed and usually go with the flow,” said Ohai, a 5-foot-5 bundle of energy who grew up in Draper, Utah, a suburb 20 minutes from Salt Lake City. “I’m not shy and I like to have fun, but I don’t get too stressed about too many things. I’m not bouncing off the walls. But in a game, I’m not the type of player that is going to calm us down and slow the game down. I’m more intense and I go crazy a little bit.”

Just like the waves at Kealia Beach.

Ohai has been a part of the U.S. National Team programs since she was 13. She was in the player pool for the 2008 cycle for the U-17s and the 2010 cycle for the U-20s, yet this is her first youth World Cup.

“I’ve come up through the ranks with these girls, but for this cycle I really wanted to step up and be a big personality on the field,” said Ohai. “I just felt like this was my time. You don’t get to play in a World Cup very often and I really wanted to have this experience. At the beginning of this cycle, I knew I wanted to be here, hopefully start and make an impact.”

So far, it’s been educational, exciting and pretty much an amazing experience for the rising junior at North Carolina.

“I expected it to be a lot different than any other games I’ve played, but you never know until you are here,” said Ohai. “I’ve played quite a few international matches, but nothing like this. It’s just awesome. It’s so different playing at a level where every team and every defender is going to be good. It really challenges you as a player.”

Like many of the U.S. U-20s, Ohai has aspirations of playing professional soccer and getting a shot with the full team one day and understands how invaluable this opportunity can be to play in a youth World Cup. These FIFA youth tournaments helped launched the careers of 2012 Olympic gold medalists Heather O’Reilly, Rachel Buehler, Kelley O’Hara, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney, among numerous others.

“It’s been a really good experience to try to prepare myself for later down the road,” said Ohai, who had an assist via crosses in each of the first two group matches. “I want to take the next steps in soccer, and it’s an experience like nothing you could have with college or club. Every game and every point are important. You have to be ready to play 90 minutes and you just have to be here to understand the level and the intensity. I’ve heard (youth World Cup veterans) Crystal (Dunn) and Sam (Mewis) tell us how different it is, but you have to be in the moment to understand. It’s a different world.”

Ohai went east to Chapel Hill for college, farther away from Hawaii, but she’s looking forward to the day when she can get back to the islands, as her aunt and cousins still live on Kauai.

“I haven’t been back in a few years, because the summers have been just too busy,” said Ohai. “But I definitely want to go back again soon.”

As she has in the past, she’ll go sit on Kealia Beach, collect a bit of sand and take in the tranquility. That is, until the waves start crashing. Then perhaps she’ll be inspired to get out a ball and engage her cousins in a game of beach soccer, and no doubt Kealia will score a goal at Kealia Beach.

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