Current Date: Fri, 07 Mar 2014 03:25:06 -0500
Kealia Ohai trudged off the field Sept. 15, her disappointment in North Carolina’s loss to Notre Dame evident in the weight of her footsteps.
She looked to the sideline, where a flock of reporters waited with a dreaded question: “Why did you lose?” It’s a question the senior hopes to avoid after this Sunday’s game against ACC foe Maryland.
But approaching the sideline that day, the first swarm of people to reach her wasn’t reporters armed with cameras and microphones. It was a swarm of young girls armed with Sharpies and smiles.
And in an instant, her mood changed.
Her bright smile spread widely across her face as she eagerly signed T-shirts on the backs of young fans. UNC had fallen, but in the eyes of the star-struck fans it hadn’t fallen an inch. The girls eventually dissipated, and Ohai had to meet the press, her disappointment evident again.
But in that moment she showed that even though her team can be defeated, her character cannot.
The birth of a star
Ohai was once one of those star-struck girls. But her idol was a lot closer to home. One of Ohai’s three sisters, Megan Cushing, was a soccer player for as long as Ohai can remember, and even played collegiately at Southern California.
At the age of 4, Ohai began to emulate her older sister by playing soccer. Before long she was playing just as well as Cushing, and as a freshman at Alta High School in Utah, Ohai outscored her sister, a senior on the same team.
“When we played together we were really competitive,” Ohai said. “I would remember games if she scored more than me or I scored more than her we would be in a big fight.”
Now they agree the dynamic between them is different. And despite the fiery sibling rivalry, Cushing came clean with her version of the truth.
“There’s really no competing with Kealia,” she said. “She’s always been the best.”
Ohai won four Utah 5A state championships, scored 126 high school goals and has scored 34 goals with 23 assists so far at UNC. Her numbers are impressive, even more so when you consider how she’s done it — with one eye.
“I’m blind in my right eye,” said Ohai, describing her condition with the same nonchalance she might use to describe the color of her shoes. “I think the biggest thing is depth perception. Sometimes when the ball is coming to me or being crossed, I can’t see how close it is. But I think I’ve just gotten used to it.”
The condition, which limits the vision in her right eye to seeing basic blurred shapes, resulted from a serious astigmatism, and Ohai was forced to wear an eye patch as a child.
Despite having every reason to, she never uses her eye as an excuse. She plays through it. To her it’s remarkably simple, but to anyone else it’s simply remarkable.
A star on the big stage
It’s Sept. 7, 2012, and that once-star-struck little girl from Draper, Utah is halfway around the world in Tokyo. Her jersey reads USA, not UNC.
Ohai is playing for the United States under-20 women’s national team, and it’s the tournament championship game against world powerhouse Germany. The United States already played Germany in group play, and lost 3-0. Ohai didn’t play in that game, but she’s starting in the championship, and she’s determined to prove her coach made the wrong decision the first time.
“I was furious that I didn’t start,” Ohai said. “So going into the finals, I don’t think I’ve ever been more pumped for a game because I was like, ‘I’m here to show them that they made a mistake.’”
And in the 44th minute she did just that.
Ohai received a feed from Crystal Dunn, a fellow Tar Heel, and immediately fired a shot past Germany’s keeper.
Her exhilaration was too much to control, and Ohai sprinted and leapt into the arms of a teammate, where many others soon piled on around her.
“When I scored it truly I felt like I was in a movie or something,” Ohai said. “(It) could not have been more magical.”
Her goal proved to be the deciding factor in the 1-0 victory, and the echoes of her singing “We Are the Champions” with teammates in the locker room resonated louder than any “I told you so” ever could.
Bringing one home
Success would follow Ohai into the college season as well, and she helped lead UNC to a national championship.
Arguably one of the biggest moments of the season for Ohai and the Tar Heels came against Stanford in the College Cup semifinals.
The game had gone into double overtime without a goal. Five minutes later, lightning struck again for Ohai. Dunn set her up, and Ohai — a dancer until she was 14 — danced away from the defense, set her feet and took a shot that snuck into the lower left corner of the goal, and snuck the Tar Heels into the NCAA final.
“Right before we went into overtime I remember (coach) Anson (Dorrance) looked at us and said, ‘Someone has to make a big play,’” Ohai said. “Whoever was going to win, it was going to have to be something incredible.”
And incredible it was.
When the ball crossed the goal line, Ohai’s exuberance once again carried her into a sprint, again right into the arms of her teammates.
“As a coach there’s no better feeling than watching these kids that have killed themselves to get where they are,” Dorrance said. “To see her celebrate so joyfully is something I’ll never forget.”
And after UNC’s 4-1 national championship win over Penn State, the celebration was the same, a victory sprint into the arms of her teammates.
Not always meant to be
Some players dream of playing for UNC. They practice every day with the hopes of one day donning Carolina blue.
But Ohai was not one of those girls. She wanted to follow in her sister’s footsteps as she had for so long. She wanted to go to Southern California, so much so that when she received letters from Dorrance, she ignored them.
“We included a personal note to her every time and got no response,” Dorrance said.
It wasn’t until her junior year in high school, when she reluctantly visited UNC to appease her family’s pleas, that she remotely considered it.
But then it all changed.
The atmosphere, the banners, the trophies. And for her, most importantly, the coach. It felt right to her. It felt like home. And she made sure it would be home, committing in Dorrance’s office that very trip.
And so it began. Before long she was a leader, a leader on a team that won the national championship. That leadership was not lost on her coach.
“I think a great measure of leadership is the impact you have on the people around you,” Dorrance said. “And her impact on that national championship team extended well beyond the players. She cemented herself right into the middle of my heart.”
Just another girl
Ohai said other coaches used UNC’s dominance as a ploy in their recruiting plot.
“You’ll be just another girl, just another national champion,” they’d say.
They were right: Ohai is another girl, another national champion.
But somewhere a proud, preteen girl stares at a prized possession hanging on the wall in her bedroom.
A T-shirt with a scribbled signature — from someone who is more than just another national champion.