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The dark side of being an Olympic athlete: it’s a roller-coaster ride

Five years ago, I was so over soccer. I’d played in the Olympics in 2008 and won a gold medal. But within a year, things started going downhill. I injured my shoulder pretty badly. I played for a few more years with the American Professional Soccer League. But then it folded.

By that point, I had no interest in playing any longer. I was done. It wasn't worth it anymore with the stress, and losing weight, and injury after injury, surgery after surgery. It was taking a toll on me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I thought I was going to break. I was like, "I just need to step away."

So I did. I went home to Hawaii and hung out with my family. I took care of my personal life. I got healthy. I gained some weight. I took care of my injuries. I got stronger mentally. I put all the outside distractions aside. In my head, I was done playing. I was okay with giving up soccer and moving on with my life.

How I came back to soccer on my own terms

Then tragedy struck: My dad got sick. He fought cancer for two years, and just before he died he said something completely unexpected: He told me he wanted me to start playing soccer again. As I said, I thought I was completely done with it. But my dad knows me best, and he knew in my heart I wasn't done playing soccer.

After he died, I figured what better motivation than this — fulfilling my father’s dying wish? It took me three years to get all my strength back. I trained seven days a week, sometimes in a gym and sometimes on the soccer field. Some days I was puking and crying, but that's what it took for me to get back into shape. The whole time I knew I had an angel on my back — I hoped I was making Dad proud.

And it paid off. Now I’m playing for the Sky Blue Football Club in New Jersey as part of the National Women’s Soccer League, a league many consider to be the top in the world for professional women.

Playing professional soccer here in America can be hard, especially compared with what it’s like to compete in the Olympics. The crowds were huge at the Olympics. But at some of our Sky Blue games, there are only 500 people watching. It sucks not having people in the stands. We're doing our part as best we can, and we just need our fans to stick it out with us.

But I’m hopeful. Soccer is a growing sport. It's not as big as we hope it is, not like in Europe, but I think slowly it's getting there. It takes time, but it’s going in the right direction. The National Women’s Soccer League has lasted longer than any of the other women’s pro soccer leagues that came before it. In the National Women’s Soccer League we currently have 10 teams, including a new team in Orlando; 23,000 people attended their opening game, which is amazing. I wish every game were like that.

What I wish people knew about elite athletes and mental health

The issue I think people really should be paying attention to is the psychological strain elite athletes are under. Everyone just wants to see the good side and the glory side of being an athlete. But in reality we deal with more than just kicking a ball, or catching a ball, or stopping a ball. It's a roller-coaster ride. Some days are good; some days are great. Some days are just a disaster.

Soccer is a brutally competitive sport. Your place on the national team is always precarious; it's like every day is a new tryout. You're constantly competing for the roster — some days you're not on the roster, some days you are.

And it can be really difficult to get help when you’re on a team. When I was playing in the previous league, I tried to get professional help. Every week I would go in and talk with a professional and discuss what I was struggling with, and she went behind my back and told everyone else. Nothing I said was confidential.

So I can totally understand and relate to why some athletes act out with drugs and alcohol — they’re under so much pressure, sacrificing their body, and they have no one to talk to.

I feel really grateful to have a totally new perspective on soccer after being gone for five years. I feel so much less stress and pressure than I used to. I’m able to remind myself, "Hey, I get to be that little kid who had a smile on her face every time I was on the field kicking the ball." It's just finding that happy place and savoring it.

Natasha Kai, a three-time Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, joined the US women's national team in 2006 after attending the University of Hawaii. Natasha led the team to victory at the 2008 Olympics when she scored the winning goal in a quarterfinal match against Canada, and the team went on to win a gold medal.

The 32-year-old Hawaii native played for Sky Blue FC and Philadelphia Independence before taking a break from soccer. Natasha returned to the sport in 2016 as a forward for Sky Blue.

As told to: Eleanor Barkhorn
Photographer: Anna Harris


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