Who you are isn’t based off what people think of you, but what you think of yourself — just ask Kealia Ohai. From falling in love with soccer as a child to professionally playing the sport as captain for Houston Dash, she’s no stranger to pursuing her passion and overcoming her obstacles. Instead, she thrives off it. Although it might be difficult to imagine running into a stadium with fans cheering your name, this scenario is already a reality for Kealia. With a smile on her face and the #7 on her jersey, she’s on the field doing what she does best: scoring goals and setting records. While she’s legally blind in her right eye, Kealia continues to show that she’s an athlete that’s as determined as she is talented. After all, her skills have led her to play in the Fédération Internationale de Football Association U-20 (FIFA U-20), Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football U-20 (CONCACAF U-20), National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
Despite the fact that her success can be explained by her dedication, she believes the support of her parents was the fuel that helped her become one of the nation’s best forward players. Raised in a household where good work ethic was the common answer to any situation, Kealia knew the only way to achieve her dream of becoming a professional athlete was to fight for her chance.
“My parents always taught me that if you want anything, you have to work hard. That’s something I’ve never struggled with,” Kealia shares. “I’m thankful I have a job that I feel passionate about. I love competing and having a goal that I can work toward.”
With her talent for soccer and her appreciation for Houston, Kealia has made the fourth largest city in the U.S. her home and is now creating a legacy within it. From playing on soccer fields around the world to volunteering her time around the Houston community, the way Kealia lives her life is proof that we’re in control of our own. She’s a driving force behind Houston Dash. She’s a reminder that greatness can be attained. She’s Kealia Ohai.
Playing to Win
Named after Kealia Beach on the island of Kauai, Kealia was born in Draper, Utah, to Ben and Cindy Ohai. While Kealia might not have known she was meant to be a star, her parents were confident in her potential. In fact, Ben Ohai was a former wrestler and two-time NCAA All-American.
Of course, with every great dream comes a person who inspired it. For Kealia, this person happened to be her sister, Megan. As a former soccer player herself, Kealia’s older sister was a four-year starter in college. “I started playing soccer competitively and Kealia followed,” Megan reminisces. “Soccer was something we did as a family.” Although Kealia may have been younger, Megan knew from watching her sister play that she was gifted.
Even from the time she was 2 years old, her athletic ability was unbelievable. At her first peewee game, she scored 18 goals.
Megan Cushing, Sister
As Kealia grew, so did her talent for soccer. However, at the age of 6, she was diagnosed with an astigmatism that led her to wearing an eye patch. Through the taunts from second grade classmates, Kealia learned to not let the opinion of others impact the one she had for herself. Although Kealia doesn’t wear her patch anymore, she still refuses to allow being legally blind define her potential as an athlete.
“My parents were sad by the news since we didn’t know what it would mean, but we quickly realized I was still able to fully function,” Kealia explains. “Growing up, I never thought about my condition and it never affected how I played.” Even as a second-grader facing vision loss, Kealia showed a type of determination that’s apparent by her self-confidence and proven by her successful career.
By the time she was ready to apply for college, more than 300 schools were already pursuing her. While she kept her options open, she chose to sign with the University of North Carolina and was a four-year starter for the UNC Tar Heels. In 2012, Kealia guided the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team to victory after scoring the game-winning goal against Germany at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. After this, she returned to help her college team win the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship and was named the tournament’s most outstanding offensive player.
With her confidence at an all-time high, Kealia set her eyes on making the national team. When asked how she knew playing professional soccer was the path she wanted to pursue, you can hear the pride in her voice: “I’ve always wanted to play on the national team, but I think winning the two championships in 2012 was huge for me. I knew after that year that I really had a chance to be drafted high on the roster.” And she was right.
Shooting for Success
While her call-up to the national team didn’t arrive immediately, Kealia was drafted to the Houston Dash her senior year of college. After graduating with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, Kealia became the second overall pick in the 2014 NWSL College Draft. “There hasn’t always been a professional women’s league in the U.S.,” Kealia notes.“Yet the year I was drafted was also the Dash’s first year in existence, so it worked out perfectly.”
“I’m one of the only players left from the original team,” she continues. “My ties to Houston and how much I love the city is why I’m dedicated to making Houston Dash a winning franchise.”
While the support from her loved ones grounded Kealia, it wasn’t until she decided to remain confident in her skills that her talent shined. Despite the pressure, she maintained a positive mentality and focused on her love for the game. She believed she was a good forward— and scored 11 goals in 10 games that year to prove it.
With an outstanding season behind her, it seemed as though she wasn’t the only person who knew her potential. Shortly after, Kealia received the call that she had worked her entire life for.
Despite her successful career and her new status as a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team, Kealia was faced with the challenge of getting on the field. Yet, she received her chance in the second half of a match against Switzerland. While we’re always told the greatest things in life take time, this wasn’t the case for Kealia. It took her 48 seconds to score and slide into history as the 21st player to make a goal in her first cap. While doing this, she also set a new record for fastest goal made in a debut game.
Overcoming the Obstacles
Although her 2016 season launched her into the spotlight, her 2017 season was one to remember. Playing 71 games and starting in 67 of them, Kealia holds the club records of an all-time leading scorer with most games played and started.
Regardless of the fact that Kealia was approaching the peak of her career, the Florida game against Orlando Pride came with a challenge that she hadn’t expected. It was there that she felt the pain in her left knee as her ACL tore. Even though her injury took her out for the remainder of the season, Kealia was once again determined to reveal why your circumstances don’t predict your outcome.
“I had rehab for four to five hours every day of the week. At the beginning, you can’t run or walk so it’s mostly strengthening your quads,” Kealia explains. “In total, it’s about eight or nine months until you’re back to training.”
Despite Kealia’s positive attitude, the road to recovery was one that pushed her physically and challenged her mentally. “I’ve never had an injury like that before. Looking back, I really didn’t understand the rehab process and what it entainled.”
“With any injury, there are so many ups and downs. It’s absolutely impossible to heal in a linear path,” Kealia adds.
The recovery process takes a long time. There are some days where you don’t improve at all and other days where you get worse.
Even though some people might’ve let this struggle affect their mindset, Kealia simply allowed it to fuel her drive. This forward player hadn’t let roadblocks stop her in the past and this knee injury would be no different. A year after she was cleared to play, Kealia found herself back on the field where she first felt her knee pop. Ready and confident, she kicked a goal that tied the game. When reflecting on her past season, Kealia explains, “I was really proud of being able to return and finish the season. Coming back after having moments when I didn’t think I would play again is what made it so special.”
Kicking Up Fitness
On the days where Kealia isn’t making her mark in soccer history, you can find this easy-going athlete staying active in Houston. Kealia laughs as she admits, “I think for the rest of my life I’m going to love working out. My favorite is spinning and going to SWEAT 1000.” Nestled in The Heights, the SWEAT 1000 studio is only one of the many attractions in this charming historic district.
Houston is also home to IX Innovations, the elite fitness gym that Kealia goes to every single day. “The thing I’ve realized through working out at IX Innovations is that I have to lift weights in order to stay fit. It’s an important part of my workout.”
Her personal trainer, Dose Khan, couldn’t agree more. “I think lifting weights is a sense of home for Kealia, because it strengthens her mentality and gives her that good feeling,” he explains.
Similar to Kealia, Dose is all too familiar with the struggle that comes from an ACL tear. While his own injury could’ve been a setback for his career, Dose went on to train athletes such as NBA All-Star Derrick Rose. Nowadays, he’s the head athletic trainer of IX Innovations and pushes all of his clients to reach their fitness goals, including Kealia.
“Kealia’s resilience and work ethic makes her a strong athlete. To see her come back from her injury better than ever was shocking. She pushed through the mental aspect of an ACL tear and didn’t let doubt stop her,” Dose muses. “I’ve known her for the past four years and she’s truly a kind soul. A huge part of who I am and the progress I’ve made in my career is because of her.”
Even though Kealia looks forward to workouts off the field, her main focus is to become the strongest player in the game. “I have to go to the field at least five days a week to practice. If you go a long time without touching the ball, it really affects the way you play.”
Naturally, with hard training comes time to relax. While Kealia is committed to her hobby of working out, she also enjoys the diversity of food options in Houston. When asked where she eats in this metropolitan city, she answers without hesitation, “One of my favorite restaurants in Houston is Kata Robata.” Her go-to order? Yellowtail-, tuna-, and truffle vinaigrette sushi rolls. With their unique menu, it’s understandable that Kealia is a fan of this popular sushi restaurant.
In a vibrant city that offers over 10,000 restaurants, the Houston food scene is one that can only be understood when experienced. Yet, Kealia has her own reasons for why she calls this city home.
“The sports in Houston makes the city stand out to me. When the Astros won the World Series, people were so supportive,” Kealia gushes. “Also, I love shopping in the Galleria area.” Whether you’re from Houston or passing through, you’ve probably heard of this section. As Texas’ largest shopping mall, the Galleria is hard to miss and even harder to forget.
In spite of the seemingly endless amount of things to do in Houston, there’s nothing better than staying home, especially in Kealia’s opinion. From curling up on the couch with a book to hanging out in the kitchen after a cooking session, it’s the simplest things that are the most special to this soccer star.
Going the Extra Mile
Although Kealia leaves her all on the field, she makes it a priority to give her time to the community. Volunteering for Texas Children’s Hospital and Habitat for Humanity are only some of the ways she stays involved. Amongst her organizations, Best Buddies International is one that specifically roots her in Texas. Best known as the world’s largest organization dedicated to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), this non-profit creates opportunities for 200 million people to build meaningful friendships, secure employment and develop leadership skills.
Director of State Development, Arden Stone, has worked for this organization for over five years. “I’ve seen many students grow from our organization and talk about how they want to attend college and get a job because of the impact of their buddy,” Arden shares.
Three years ago, the Best Buddies Gala was held in order to introduce the organization to the city of Houston. When asked if Kealia had been involved in this event, Arden smiles and reflects, “This is when I met Kealia. She was our first local celebrity who modeled in the fashion show.” While this night was special for everyone who participated, Kealia and the buddy she matched with, Ethan, formed a bond that lasted much longer.
“Ethan is such a cool kid. I walk with him in every fashion show,” Kealia says. “He’s been working at Marshalls for five years and was also recently honored for that. He’s just so awesome.”
“To see Ethan and Kealia remain close is really humbling,” Arden comments. “When she met him at our first fashion show, she immediately reached out the next day to ask if she could hang out with him more. Her participation has been a huge step forward for what we’re trying to do.” She adds, “Kealia has the biggest heart. Her desire to make an impact is genuine. She cares about the community that she lives in and is trying to make it the best it can be.”
When it comes to Kealia’s dedication, it’s clear that her commitment doesn’t stop at soccer. Instead, her passion is reflected in every aspect of her life and proven by the impact she makes. Her story isn’t powerful due to her struggles, but because she continues to believe in herself despite her challenges. Regardless of where life takes her next, we know Kealia isn’t done showing the world who she is. In fact, she’s just getting started.
Feature Photo Courtesy of Bailey Hart Creative.