Asking if people remember Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless Tongan flag-bearer from the 2016 Rio Olympics, seems silly. After he and his oiled-up chest triumphantly marched in during the Opening Ceremony, they were everywhere for weeks. So the better question is “where were you when Pita Taufatofua came into your life?”
The answer doesn’t really matter because there’s good news: he’s back! Only this time, he won’t be shirtless. No wait don’t leave! His chest and abs will still be around, just under layers and layers of winter clothing. Because Taufatofua is now a cross-country skier, and he’s just one race away from qualifying for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The Wall Street Journal has the full story of Taufatofua’s journey from taekwondo to cross-country skiing, and it’s inspirational and insane all at once. After his time at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Taufatofua didn’t want celebrity, he wanted another athletic challenge. So he decided to pick a sport that would allow him to compete at the 2018 Olympics. In Pyeongchang. In the winter. And Taufatofua told the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t really give it much thought.
“My research process was really limited, because I’m an impulsive sort of guy,” he said. “That looks hard—I’m going to do that. That looks impossible—that’s where I need to be. Cross- country looks like there’s no way I can do it in a year—therefore I have to do it in a year.”
Thought or not, picking cross-country skiing was a blessing. He announced he would become a cross-country skier in December 2016, and just a year ago in January 2017 Taufatofua met with a coach who knew exactly how to teach beginners. Taufatofua moved in with the coach and his wife in Germany and started learning the sport.
For a guy who grew up around sand and coconuts, the transition wasn’t easy. He was so cold that he started wearing an extra layer under his coat for warmth, and practiced almost excessive safety, including wearing a helmet (which he wore until someone told him he looked stupid) and secret knee pads underneath his pants.
Once he returned to his home in Brisbane, Australia, Taufatofua was presented with a different problem: there was no snow for practicing and training. The solution? Roller skiing, which allowed him to practice both in the sunshine and without a shirt. Even better news: Taufatofua’s roller skiing would actually count.
In an effort to expand the field, the International Ski Federation changed it rules after the Sochi Games to allow points accrued in roller-skiing events to count toward cross- country skiing.
That meant that Taufatofua could compete in cross-country roller-skiing races and the points would count toward qualifying for the Olympics. To qualify, Taufatofua needed to finish five races with a score that met certain objectives. Over the past year he’s managed four of those finishes, so his Olympic dreams are within reach.
Taufatofua needs one more race to qualify for the Olympics, but he’ll have to do it on snow and not roller skis. He’s spent time in recent weeks learning about ski wax, different types of snow, actual snow skiing techniques, and the many rules of the sport. He’s out of money and thousands of dollars in debt, driven by the pure desire for challenge.
It’s not a given that Taufatofua will qualify. The Wall Street Journal says that Taufatofua has struggled to acclimate to skiing and actual competition in the cold. His recent finishes weren’t good enough to qualify him, and he’s got one more shot: he’s competing in Poland over the weekend. His performance there will determine whether he will be able to represent Tonga in the Olympics. There’s a lot riding on it, but Taufatofua has an enviable perspective.
“I don’t fear failure,” he said. “I fear not trying.”
If Taufatofua qualifies, he’ll have already succeeded as the first person to compete in both taekwondo and cross-country skiing at the Olympics. In that case, the only possible failure would be if he came to the Opening Ceremony with a shirt on. The world fell in love with his oiled torso two years ago, and everyone is ready to fall in love all over again.
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