Even if you think you don't know Kalei Waiwaiole, you most certainly know her voice. Whether you are a triathlete or a trail runner, Kalei is the one at the finish, encouraging you in while spouting off the highlight reel of your life - everything from the last race you ran to the fact that you volunteer at the library on weekends.
Kalei seems born to be an XTERRA announcer. Petite, sparkly, and athletic, she loves people, the outdoors, and getting dirty. However, her calling is still a surprise to her. In high school, she almost didn't graduate because she got a D in speech class.
"I was a shy kid," she admits. "I would not get up and talk in front of people. Even in class. In fact, I did everything I could to pass speech class without actually having to speak."
Now Kalei looks back at her shyness as the first step on her path.
"You grow up thinking you are one thing and then life throws something else at you," says Kalei. "That D was like God kicking me in the ass and saying, 'Here you go. You're going to fail speech class? Well guess what you're going to be in life.'"
Kalei also recognizes that her early shyness was a defense mechanism. Although she was born on Oahu, she moved to Tennessee - where her mother was from - at a young age. Growing up Hawaiian in the American South wasn't easy.
"I didn't fit in," she remembers. "I knew that Tennessee wasn't my home. My dad always told me the 'aina would call me back, and as soon as it did, I moved back to Hawaii."
After leaving the mainland, Kalei enjoyed a successful career at Billabong, where she managed four retail stores and traveled all over Hawaii to launch new locations. A cyclist at heart, she also taught spinning classes and volunteered at local races on Oahu.
One day, she was volunteering for a race director friend and the race announcer didn't show up. So the race director asked Kalei to fill in.
"I was like, no way," says Kalei. "The only time I had ever been on a microphone was to teach spinning and a race is nothing like a spin class."
In the end, Kalei agreed, but only to help her friend.
"It was awesomely fun, but extremely uncomfortable," she admits about her first race. "I didn't know what to look for, I didn't know to ask for the start list or to ask about sponsors. I just had to wing it. I told a joke, I said the race will start in 15 minutes, and I told people where the bathrooms were. I just looked around and tried to say what needed to be said."
Today, the way Kalei works couldn't be more different. Today, she can walk into a race, take a schedule, and actually facilitate the way the event works. Her preparation begins long before the day of an XTERRA championship race. For weeks before the event, Kalei studies athletes' bios, memorizes race numbers, and learns as much as she can about both the amateurs and the elites.
On race day, Kalei slips into the role she was born to play. But it isn't forced and it isn't fake.
"I take a deep breath, turn the light switch on, and push the button. And it's not over until the last pin is in the truck and the door is closed. But I can't tell you what happens between A and Z. I'm just in the zone."
Rather than step into an announcer persona, or try to be someone she's not, Kalei becomes her most authentic self when she has a microphone in her hand.
"Announcing for XTERRA feels like I get to break out of my shell," she says. "It's who I am inside. When I turn on that microphone switch, it's not fake. It's like, here I go. I get to let the real me come out. I get to become that person I always kind of thought I was."
XTERRA athletes recognize Kalei's genuine passion for them and the sport. To many of them, Kalei has become family.
"That's the hardest part," she admits. "I want them all to win. When I'm announcing them coming through the finish chute, I'm really just yelling for my peeps."
Luckily, for us, Kalei has no plans to stop doing what she loves.
"After eight years, I feel like I'm kind of making it. I think I'm fitting into my announcer skin. It's like I literally found my voice."
This is the first part in a series about our XTERRA announcers.