Kamalani Dung wears many hats as a model, businesswoman and philanthropist. But it’s the work she does with a softball visor on that really makes this athlete the consummate do-it-all professional.
Kamalani Dung wasn’t exactly a prodigy. Long before her gold medal and championship trophies, she was just a kid from Mākaha, running the wrong way around the baseball diamond.
“I was chasing butterflies and totally avoiding the ball in the outfield,” Dung recalls with a chuckle. “I didn’t look like an athlete or athletic prospect at all.”
After striking out with baseball, a pint-sized Dung thought she ought to give softball a try.
“I started to learn how to pitch and I was overall obsessed with it,” she says. “I was really passionate about it, looking up to the girls above me and copying whatever they did. I would walk around my house and the store just swinging my arm around, going through my pitching motion.
“Now I think back and that was so insane and so funny.”
With a wicked right arm and enough gusto to back up its power, the Kamehameha Schools alumna quickly climbed the ranks. A four-year varsity starter, Dung led the Warriors to the championships year after year and earned All-State Division I honors each year of her high school career. On the mound, she logged an earned run average of 0.82 with 86 strikeouts, seven shutouts and an 11-1 record during her senior campaign.
“From there, I really started understanding that there were more opportunities than just playing softball here in Hawai‘i,” says Dung. “So, I started to look for college opportunities.”
Despite being one of the top players in the local game, Dung, who’s no stranger to adversity, didn’t have experience navigating the collegiate world and remained uncommitted until time was almost out. But if this sport taught her anything, it’s that when life throws you curveballs you have to keep swinging.
Fresno State University coach Trisha Ford tapped Dung for a spot on the Bulldogs, and the rest was history.
“It was definitely all in God’s plan,” says Dung, who’s the first professional softball pitcher from Hawai‘i. “She definitely gave me a chance. She knew my financial situation coming out of Wai‘anae and offered me a full ride to go to college as a late recruit. She felt like a second mom to me. It was awesome, good vibes and reminded me of home.”
As the underdog for the first time since her butterfly-chasing days, Dung had something to prove. Being in a new state with a new team would make anyone nervous — but not Dung, who saw this as an opportunity to work harder than ever before. “Leading through high school and college at Fresno State, I’ve been doubted at every single level I’ve ever played at,” she says. “It’s funny to look back because it’s definitely a defining learning experience for me, and anyone else can learn from me that people are going to doubt you at every single level of your journey, but it’s up to you whether you come out on top or not. Every single time I was doubted — and every single time I proved everyone wrong.”
In her freshman year, the Bulldogs won the Mountain West Conference, and in her sophomore year, she was named Mountain West Pitcher of the Year and placed in the top 20 in almost every major pitching category in the country. When Ford left the school, so did Dung, who, thanks to her devotion to the sport and accolades to show for it, had her pick of the litter — a far cry from just two years prior when she joined a team as a late recruit.
“It was definitely humbling, an awesome experience and super stressful,” says Dung with a laugh.
After factoring in the importance of education, Dung transferred to University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with a bachelor’s in sociology with an emphasis in business.
“I got the best of both worlds — playing in the Pac-12, which was the conference of champions, and then also attending a school that I never would’ve thought of attending out of high school,” she says.
Next came the big leagues. In 2018, Dung joined the Puerto Rican National Team, which went on to win a gold medal for the first time in two decades at the Central American Games in 2018, a bronze medal at the Pan-American Championship in 2019, and has competed in world cups across the globe (Japan and Canada are among her favorite places to visit).
“It’s just so crazy to me to think that all of this came from playing softball, and it started from that one day at the park when someone gave me a shot,” she says.
“Puerto Rico is interesting; it reminds me of Hawai‘i,” adds Dung, whose baseball-loving Puerto Rican grandfather was a big influence in her life. “I’d say that it’s maybe a little underdeveloped in terms of the city and the structures, but overall, the people, culture and community are super rich, and everyone is so supportive.”
As of today, Dung is still an active member of the team, but only competes in primary tournaments so she can live in Hawai‘i for most of the year. In 2020, she was also drafted to play in the women’s professional softball league, Athletes Unlimited.
“It’s a really innovative league that’s on ESPN and CBS Sports that’s making waves for female sports in general,” explains Dung. “It’s kind of based on fantasy sports, so every single thing you do results in money. So every pitch, every hit, every inning is all translated into a cash payout in the end depending on how well you do.”
On being a female athlete, Dung says, “I’m definitely thankful to be part of the people paving the way for the next generation.
“I’m going to have to ask them for a check when 10 years down the line they start getting their huge payouts,” she jokes.
“Athletes Unlimited is a huge one right now because it’s getting national coverage — every game is on TV — so that’s a step in the right direction for all softball players and female athletes. I think the key for me is using my experience to help the next generation of girls to see that they can use sports as a vessel for whatever it is they want to do. I know some people are full sports and some people go into business or creative arts, but my goal is to show people that you can do all of it.”
And, as they say, the best way to lead is by example. Lately, Dung has been busy running a marketing firm, planning a philanthropic foundation, modeling, acting and operating her business, Kama Training. She’s out to prove that she can wear many hats — not just a softball visor.
“A ton of athletes are saying that I’ve inspired them to embody more than whatever sport they are. My goal is to be whatever I can — a businesswoman, model, athlete, and just live it out fully. Whatever I can handle on my plate, I’m taking it right now,” she says, smiling.
Dung feels most fulfilled when she’s working with the pro softball players of tomorrow through Kama Training, a biz that collaborates with local organizations to offer coaching and mentorship for keiki and guidance for parents, as well as sports camps statewide. In its current form, it’s built for softball players, but Dung hopes to eventually open it up to young athletes across all sports.
“If I didn’t have a coach here and there to lend me a pair of shoes, give me a glove, tell me the correct tournament to go to, I don’t know where I would’ve ended up. My life would’ve been a lot different,” says Dung. “I’m thankful that softball worked out for me, and if I can be that person who can give back and change the life of one kid, then hopefully they can do the same for one kid once they get to the point that I’ve gotten to now.
“The advice I would give (to young girls) is don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. I’m living testimony that hard work, dedication and showing up for opportunities is something that will pay off. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the resources, just take what you have and go from there. There’s always going to be people rooting for you. Find those people, take the cards you’ve been dealt and play them as best as you can.”
A lot has happened since Dung’s early days on the softball field. Looking back, she wouldn’t change a thing, because every swing and miss led her to where she is today. And, it made her all the more prepared to help butterfly chasers like herself throw a perfect pitch of their own.