Natasha Kai interview: ‘Bring the beat back!’ – Sky Blue’s Hawaiian returns to rock the house

Stacked with irrepressible personality, Natasha Kai emerged as one of the most exciting players in women’s soccer before stepping away from the limelight over four years ago. Now the time has come for the Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. forward to return to both the professional game and familiar surroundings, and there are no plans to do it quietly.

For every player who has successfully hit their profession’s higher reaches, you can be sure that they share some fundamental qualities with their peers. Each one, however, has walked their own path to be where they are, and that is particularly apt when it comes to Tasha Kai.

The U.S. Women’s National Team has been represented by players from various different states through the years, but nobody had ever come from Hawaii to step onto the field with the full team until Tasha. Her scoring form came instantly with her 2006 debut, and at 25, a player who had never featured as a youth international stood on the medal podium as the U.S. struck gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

A sensational performer at the University of Hawaii, Tasha is also associated with her Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) career, as she played all three seasons of the former pro league and lifted the Championship with Sky Blue in 2009. Fans could be forgiven for thinking they’d never see her tormenting opposing defences again, with the first three years of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) passing without her return.

Last month, however, one of the most surprising signings of the NWSL era was confirmed, as Sky Blue announced her return. The 2016 Tasha considers herself wiser from her experiences, but nothing has been lost from her personality, and that includes a feeling for rhythm that always saw her at the forefront with the locker-room hot-stepping. Far from simply a liking for showing off some dance moves, there is a very definite significance to this side of who she is.

“I think music growing up in Hawaii was very important as part of our culture and background,” she explains. “My dad was a very good musician; he was well known in Hawaii for his singing and playing the guitar and ukulele.”

“And just life in general, I think music is a big part of my life.”

As so many back home sadly learned in December 2014, Tasha’s father, ‘Uncle Benny’ Kai, passed away having entertained the people of Hawaii for over three decades. Along with sharing his terrific musical ability, he would further charm audiences when he played the ukulele behind his head, while he could also carry off quite the Louis Armstrong impression as he performed.

A father to Tasha and her five siblings, as well as a grandfather, Benny used to host the lūʻau at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, where he was ambassador, and would also teach students about music and culture. Kahuku-born Tasha once said that the Center is where she’d take her teammates if the National Team ever played in Hawaii.

While the here and now is about her contribution to a Sky Blue team with considerable young talent to go with some distinguished experienced players, people will always remember Tasha strongly from the international arena. She was number six for the U.S. at both the 2007 FIFA World Cup and 2008 Olympic Games, making her World Cup debut in the opening draw with North Korea before coming on in the 3-0 quarter-final win over England and the 4-1 victory against Norway for third place.

Tasha’s goals had helped the team to qualify for the Beijing Games and she delivered the extra-time winner to beat Canada 2-1 in the quarter-final in Shanghai, as well as appearing in the semi-final with Japan, and against Brazil as they secured gold. From a spot on the USA Women’s Rugby 7s team to taking piano lessons, she has never been shy of testing herself away from soccer in the past, so what about recording a song one day with some career teammates? Tasha opted to go the Milli Vanilli route and skip the vocals altogether!

“Oh man…I think we would have to do a lip sync battle to *NSYNC. I would get Christie Rampone, Lindsay Tarpley, Heather O’Reilly, and probably Megan Rapinoe.

“We’d bust out the white girl dance – no rhythm!”

As this NWSL season starts to come fully into view, Tasha will once again cross paths with opponents, teammates and coaches from days gone by. Perhaps the strongest embodiment of that is Sky Blue’s legendary U.S. defender Christie Rampone, who was a housemate of hers once upon a time and remains a close friend as they fire up their on-field companionship once again.

Back in WPS, Tasha and others had their top three preferred destinations to submit for the team they would want to play on and she was told by Rampone that her daughter, Rylie, would no longer be her friend if New Jersey wasn’t at the top of her list! She needn’t have worried, as they did play together in that inaugural season of 2009, overcoming team managerial changes – captain Rampone became the third coach of the season – and unremarkable form to sneak into the playoffs.

In another life: Tasha representing Sky Blue back in WPS. Photo: Wikipedia / Areyouontheball
In another life: Tasha representing Sky Blue back in WPS. Photo: Wikipedia / Areyouontheball

Tasha was on the scoresheet in the first round win at Washington Freedom before Sky Blue saw off Saint Louis Athletica to set up a Championship decider with regular-season winners Los Angeles Sol at the Home Depot Center. Sky Blue’s opponents were led by the league’s top scorer, Marta, who was part-way through her five-time consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year reign, but the New Jersey side were victorious in California, with Heather O’Reilly’s early goal doing the damage.

Although Sky Blue missed out on the 2010 playoffs by three points, Tasha was in Abby Wambach’s XI for the WPS All-Star Game with Marta’s XI and had continued to progress and find her way in her second pro year. With 11 goals in two seasons, she headed off to play for Paul Riley at Philadelphia Independence in 2011 and it was a switch which saw her hit full flow, although there was the early initiation nerve-tester to negotiate before she wreaked havoc on the field.

“I think I had to sing for Philly on the bus but I can’t remember what song I sang. I know I wasn’t good, though!”

Haunting Sky Blue in that 2011 campaign with a regular-season hat-trick against them, Tasha rekindled her playoff scoring touch with a feint and a curled finish to set the Independence on their way to sweeping aside magicJack in the semi-final. Wearing jersey number 00, she reached double figures in front of goal that year, showing in WPS’ final season how she could make something out of nothing. A fitting example came against Boston Breakers as her tenacity and persistence saw her beat Ifeoma Dieke before following in her shot off the post to score a diving header past Alyssa Naeher.

Philly were ultimately beaten on penalties in the Championship game with Western New York Flash but there remains a bond between the members of that squad five years later. Forward Lianne Sanderson said that certain songs take her straight back to warming up on the field with the team that season, while music even had its part in the season’s kit launch for the league, with Tasha showing off her dance moves again as singer Fefe Dobson performed live.

Feeling the anxiousness ahead of kick-off, Tasha used to dance in the locker room as a way of easing her nerves and those around her would soon join in. On this site, teammates from the WPS era have named her as someone who would help dictate the music as well as leading with the moves, so aside from the likes of midfielder Rosana’s Brazilian dance songs at Sky Blue, what does Tasha remember of her WPS soundtrack?

“I mean, I got some tunes up on my phone or iPod, but I think back in those times when we were playing it was a mix of everything in the locker room: Justin Bieber, some Rihanna, Missy Elliott. We always had Michael Jackson playing – that’s my homeboy, I love Michael Jackson – but just all types of different songs, especially country…psyche!”

Back in March 2006, Tasha was with the National Team in Portugal preparing for her senior debut against Denmark while her family back home braved the ultra-early get-up to follow how she was doing. With the game not televised or streamed, they had to follow U.S. Soccer website updates and when Tasha made it 5-0 to the U.S. they made sure the neighbours could hear the celebrations.

Hitting the net again two days later against France, her early form proved the first Hawaiian to ever represent the team was very much in company she belonged. There were injuries and other challenges to battle during her international career but Tasha won 67 caps and scored 24 times for her country and was once described as ‘fantastic in many ways’ by the team’s former coach Pia Sundhage.

Often joined on the National Team dancefloor by Lindsay Tarpley and Shannon Boxx, to name but two, Tasha was the group’s ‘hip-hop mentor’, although it is largely artists from other genres she has been to watch in concert.

“I’ve been to Janet Jackson, Jack Johnson, and in September I’m going to go and see Adele in Madison Square Garden, I believe. I think, for me, one person I would love to see is – who sadly passed away – Michael Jackson.

“Maybe I’ll catch ‘the Biebs’ one of these days; so Justin Bieber, holler at me!”

With the beauty of Oahu’s North Shore as a close companion in her young life, Tasha went to Kahuku High School, where she set state records for the 300m hurdles (as a freshman) and high jump. Dancing hula as a kid may not have been for her but she was an all-round sporting participant, competing in the likes of volleyball and basketball, while she had an hour’s journey to play club soccer.

Tasha had an upbringing soaked in musical heritage in Hawaii, so naturally her first record, tape or CD is one from The Aloha State itself…right?

“I have to say, I think it was Britney Spears…no comment!”

Stepping out for the University of Hawaii’s Rainbow Wahine, Tasha made history when she was named both the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Freshman of the Year as well as Player of the Year in 2002. She would receive the latter again in 2003 and 2005 as she progressed through a collegiate career which yielded an outstanding 72 goals in 73 appearances.

Also getting to play alongside her younger sister, Krisha, at UH, Tasha thought the odds were against her making a career in soccer, given where she came from. However, she led the nation in scoring in her sophomore year and was called into the U.S. Under-21s by coach Chris Petrucelli.

After a fractured clavicle in the WAC Tournament in November 2004, Tasha had to also overcome shoulder surgery at the start of 2005. Nevertheless, she was called back into the Under-21s under Jill Ellis, who recommended her to senior coach Greg Ryan, and so came her breakthrough with the full team in 2006.

She has had some notable National Team and club colleagues who can shine with their singing, like Megan Rapinoe, and Heather O’Reilly’s rapping is its own tiny piece of women’s soccer folklore in itself. Has anyone else remained in Tasha’s mind for such talents?

“Oh that might be a tough one. I think we’re all great singers in our own little way…and that’s why we’re soccer players at the end of the day!”

As Tasha decided on a lip sync battle with boyband nostalgia for her teammate cover song earlier, maybe she should also have the option of turning to a true specialist to be alongside on a track. Let’s say she could bring back ‘The King of Pop’ to rework an MJ classic.

“Oh my God…I think ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, that’s my jam right there. That’s my favourite song of his so we’ll probably do that one.”

In addition to having the constant that is family, Tasha’s soccer life has been filled with unique characters, but it could all have been so different. When high school came to an end, she took a year out from formal education and playing soccer, choosing instead to work, spend time surfing, and hanging out with friends while she contemplated where her future lay.

Eventually deciding it was time to focus and go to college, the soccer narrative resumed, and it would introduce her to players she worked herself into the ground alongside on the field, laughed, hurt and celebrated with. When the NWSL came around, Tasha was acquired by Washington Spirit in the 2013 Supplemental Draft, although she ultimately would not return to the pro game at that time.

It took a while longer but she has now made it back. The 2016 NWSL season gets underway later this month and while Sky Blue and Tasha are reigniting their former spark it is a new beginning for the team in many ways. As head coach Jim Gabarra starts afresh with Washington, Christy Holly begins his tenure at the helm for Sky Blue after three seasons as an assistant coach with the club.

MAC Hermann Trophy winner and Costa Rican international Raquel Rodríguez will be among the attacking options, having been drafted in January along with fellow college prospects in Hofstra forward Leah Galton, Rutgers defender and New Jersey native Erica Skroski, and First Team All-American goalkeeper Caroline Casey, who had a stellar year at William & Mary. Along with the new additions, two-time World Cup champion Christie Rampone will once again lead from the backline, and an old connection was sparking again as she set up Tasha for a volleyed goal in the preseason win over North Carolina, with the ball never touching the floor from Kelley O’Hara’s corner before it went in.

‘Captain America’ Rampone was also one of those leading the delighted welcomes after Tasha rejoined Sky Blue in February, and a few years previous, she and National Team colleague Angela Hucles had accompanied Tasha as she appeared on the TV show LA Ink to get tattooed by Kat Von D. That particular interest of Tasha’s generally comes up in conversation with people at some point and it did so here as she considered what she’d tell the childhood version of herself, if she could go back now.

“Probably not to get any tattoos; I know my mom hates every single one of them! No but in all seriousness, I don’t think I’d change anything.

“I mean, I think in order to become a better person you have to suffer the good and the bad. All the bad things that happened to me I think made me a stronger person, on and off the field.

“Everything’s life lessons and I think I’m much older now and I’ve learned from those mistakes. I started from the bottom and worked my way up and hopefully I can just stay up and stay on this high, so I wouldn’t change anything.”

In that LA Ink episode, Tasha was inked between her shoulder blades with God’s hands holding a Kanji design for the word ‘belief’, which had been integral to the Olympic success of her team. Although she started playing soccer at seven, she had told her dad two years earlier that she wanted to be on the Olympic team and win gold, so that tattoo perhaps holds extra meaning.

For many years, Tasha has spoken of wanting to open doors for people and not only those from Hawaii. Now she has pro soccer again to continue doing just that. When her former Philadelphia Independence teammate Lianne Sanderson discussed her own career, life and those she has shared it with in detail on here two years ago she described Tasha as one of the most selfless people she has ever met and ‘the kind of person who would go to Starbucks and buy everyone a drink.’

There are numerous people who will take immense happiness from seeing her hit the net again this season, as well as just simply seeing her out there in the action again after the possibility had seemed to be gone. As Tasha once said, ‘Sometimes you can get off track in life, but if you have the heart, and belief in yourself, you never know what can happen.’

Rest assured that whatever the end-of-season figures show, there’ll be no shortage of entertainment over these months to come, because for all the characters that bring women’s soccer to life and make it what it is, there’s nobody quite the same as Tasha Kai.

To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes

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