Kealia Ohai had it all in Houston.
She was set to begin her seventh NWSL season with the Houston Dash and fifth as captain of the team which drafted her second overall in 2014. Plus, her three sisters lived a few miles away, and it’s where she met and built a home with fiancé, Texans star J.J. Watt.
“I think everyone just assumed that I would never leave Houston because my entire family is here,” Ohai said. “But my career is not going to be forever, and right now that’s what I’m focused on.”
In the fall, Ohai, who tied for the Golden Boot award in 2016 with 11 goals, met with the Dash and asked to be traded to the Red Stars.
She felt playing in Chicago for coach Rory Dames would give her the best opportunity to return to her peak form before an ACL tear during the 2017 threatened to derail her career.
“I know I can be that good [again],” Ohai said. “I know I can produce that much. I know I can be the leading scorer in the league, and that’s what I want to get back to.”
Ohai’s ACL tear was the first injury of her career. Before the 2017 season, she only had missed five games since she began playing soccer when she was 4.
The challenges rehab presented were foreign to Ohai, but overcoming adversity wasn’t. She was 7 when a bad astigmatism left her legally blind in her right eye. When the topic of her vision comes up, Ohai laughs, amused by the fact that it’s even considered a limitation by some.
“When I hear the way people react to it, I say ‘If I was thinking that my whole life, I might have thought I can’t play professional soccer, or I can’t play sports because my eyes are bad,’” Ohai said. “I never thought twice about it growing up because that’s the way my parents raised me.”
Her career is marked by substantial achievements, and everyone that knows her believes there are more to come. That includes Watt, who was one of the most influential people in her trade to the Red Stars.
Watt supported her decision to leave the comfort of Houston and played a pivotal role in Ohai’s rehab process. No stranger to injury himself, Watt gave Ohai insight into the mental road she would face during rehab. It wouldn’t be a straightforward path back to peak health, but on the days she felt she regressed, she had a partner who understood.
Together, they have lifted each other up to continue striving for more in their respective sports.
“He pushed me to do this,” Ohai said. “He knew I was thinking about it. He knew I felt I might need a new environment to grow as an athlete, and from the very beginning, [he] really wanted this for me.”
Watt demonstrated his support for Ohai publicly after a Houston television station shared a tweet that referred to Ohai as Watt’s fiancée instead of using her name or title.
This kind of slight isn’t new for women in sports, and unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time Ohai had experienced that kind of disrespect. She is hopeful that her example, as well as the example the NWSL is setting, will help create change for young women in soccer and beyond.
“There are people who are tweeting at me that nobody knows what women’s soccer is,” Ohai said. “These headlines and these stories just fuel that. Until that changes, we can’t change society. We can’t change the narrative about equal pay; we can’t change any of it.”
Ohai knows the playing field still is unequal compared to her male counterparts, but it has grown substantially in recent years.
When Ohai was playing youth soccer, a professional career in the sport wasn’t feasible. The only real opportunity was making the U.S. Women’s National Team roster.
She was determined to play at the highest possible level, and at the time college was it.
“Kealia had hit another level of her game,” said her older sister Megan Cushing, who played with Ohai in high school and went on to play at USC. “She was at a point where we all knew she was really something special.”
Prolific North Carolina women’s soccer coach, Anson Dorrance thought she had something special, too.
Dorrance recalls the first time he saw Ohai play; he didn’t believe she was from Utah. He thought that surely a player with her speed and ability had to be from some major program on the west coast. After just a few minutes watching her play, he knew she was a Tar Heel.
Less than a day into her 48-hour recruitment visit to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Ohai demonstrated that same self-assuredness she did this fall when she requested a trade.
“This was before I even asked her,” said Dorrance, the winner of U.S. Soccer’s Werner Fricker Builder Award in 2016. “She walks up to me and basically says ‘Is it OK if I commit right now?’”
Ohai went on to lead UNC to an NCAA championship in 2012. That same year she scored the game-winning goal for the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team in the final match of the U-20 Women’s World Cup playing alongside future Red Stars teammates Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian and Vanessa DiBernardo.
Ohai will start planting new roots in Chicago in the next few weeks, depending on Watt’s playoff schedule, which she said is a great problem to have.
She officially will join the team in the first week of March and knows there was a significant hole left at forward after the departure of 2019 NWSL MVP Sam Kerr. Ohai doesn’t feel any pressure. Their styles of play are vastly different, she said, and she knows her impact will be entirely her own.
“I have always wanted to play for Chicago,” Ohai said. “The organization has such an incredible reputation around the league, and I’m so thankful that it worked out this way.”