Recalling Laie’s Ambassador Of Aloha

It wasn’t too long ago that entertainer Benny Kai and wife Sharon were sitting in the stands at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He flew in three of his six children to cheer on his daughter Natasha (Tasha) and the rest of the USA Women’s Soccer Team that year, as they vied for the gold. Flashbacks of his little girl’s dream kept entering his mind.

Tasha recalls, “I was 5 and we were sitting in our living room. I told him, ‘Someday, Dad, I am going to the Olympics and win a gold medal!’

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Natasha Kai and her proud father, the late Benny Kai Jr. Photo courtesy Mike Foley

“Perhaps he thought I was just talking bubbles then, but he encouraged me to dream big and to do everything in my power to accomplish my goals and dreams.”

At the Olympics, she scored the winning goal in overtime against Canada with a diving header in the quarterfinal match. Tasha played a key role and helped lead the women to a gold-medal finish. The proud father from Kahuku lived to see his firstborn stand on an Olympic podium during the awards ceremony with the American flag flying high. Draped over her shoulders was the shiny gold medal Tasha had promised Benny back in 1988.

Two days before Christmas, the tables had done a 360 soccer spin. It was Tasha’s turn to cheer on Dad as he battled for his life.

“He often asked me in hospice, ‘Where’s my gold medal?’ He wore and held it the whole time,” she says. Tears streamed down Benny’s cheeks when the gold medalist declared to her father, “Dad, you are my gold medal.”

Laie’s Ambassador of Aloha and the Polynesian Cultural Center entertainer was surrounded by family as he took his final breath, losing his life to cancer. Tasha believes that her father did not lose a battle with lymphoma, but rather he had won the race of a lifetime, and that Benny truly “brought home the gold.” After all, Benny Kai had a heart of gold. “He had the biggest heart and was often known to give the shirts off his back to those who were suffering.”

For more than four decades, millions of visitors who streamed through Polynesian Cultural Center’s Hawaiian Village and luau saw Benny’s skillful routines of playing his ukulele behind his head and even with his teeth. He had a contagious smile and was a gifted musician.

“He always sang and played his ukulele, and showed tourists the true meaning of the aloha spirit,” recalls Tasha.

He was perhaps best known for Louis Armstrong impersonations. What a Wonderful World happens to be Tasha’s favorite song. “It makes me happy and proud that I am his daughter, and no matter what team I was on, he was always coaching me from the stands,” she says. Benny was her soccer coach from age 7 to 13. Tasha gave up her lucrative career as a professional soccer player in 2012 to take care of him. She was playing for Philadelphia Independence in the Women’s Professional Soccer League.

“Family is the most important thing to me. He sacrificed everything for us growing up, so this was just an easy decision for me to come home to care for him,” says Tasha. “The last week in the hospital with my dad, I made sure I told him that I loved him. ‘Love you more and I love you most’ were his immediate responses. I knew that day would come, but I didn’t know it would come so quickly. I thought I was going to be a train wreck and angry at the world that my father is no longer here, but he had a peaceful parting. The fact that he is no longer suffering and in pain comforts me.

“Growing up, Dad told me he really wanted a son and he even treated me like a boy. He told me, instead he got a strong woman. We laughed,” explains Tasha. She garnered awards that made her dad regret his wish for a son because she exceeded his sports expectations. She was named 2002 Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year and earned All-WAC First Team Honors. As a Rainbow Wahine soccer player, she led the nation in scoring with 29 goals and became the first player in WAC history to earn three Player of the Year awards. As a pro, she became the fourth player in U.S. Women’s National Team history to score in her first two games.

Tasha is the first player from Hawaii to have played for the full Women’s National Team. But she says her father’s most cherished historical moment was at the Beijing Olympics.

“He was a proud fan but even a prouder father, knowing that all the hard work, dedication, blood, sweat and tears he put into coaching and sacrifice for me paid off when I became the first female athlete from Hawaii to win a gold medal in the Olympics,” she says.

I personally witnessed that pride when we honored Tasha during several countywide celebrations when I was mayor. And through the years, when I would bump into Benny in the community, the wide grin was embedded on his countenance.

Through Benny’s suffering and discomfort, Tasha saw strength in the bond that her parents solidified through their beliefs that families are forever.

“The love my parents had for each other is priceless. With a courageous spirit, Dad tackled his race head on with Mom beside him. He has helped us heal with his bright smile enshrined in our memories,” says Tasha. “Follow your heart” (in Hawaiian) is inked on Tasha’s body to remind her of Benny’s last words.

Benny Kai fought a good fight, and it is encouraging to Tasha and the Kai ohana that he’s up there in the heavens keeping the flame of hope alive, as they plan to celebrate his life during every Olympics opening ceremony.

mufi@mufihannemann.com