PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Pita Taufatofua has three targets for Friday’s 15-kilometer freestyle cross-country ski race. Firstly, having had simply 12 weeks on snow ever, he desires to complete the race earlier than they flip the lights off. Secondly he desires to keep away from snowboarding into a tree. And thirdly, and this was the underpinning theme he delivered Wednesday, he desires to be a determine of inspiration for these again in Tonga and Polynesia.
The Tongan flag-bearer shot to fame on the Rio 2016 Games for his topless ceremony stroll, and he repeated it right here in Pyeongchang regardless of the freezing temperatures. As he spoke about his journey, fielded questions on Valentine’s Day and his native South Korean fan membership, his hopes for Friday’s race boil down to 1 factor: inspiring anybody in all walks of life to consider within the unimaginable.
The Winter Olympics is well-versed in unlikely heroes. From Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, to the Jamaica bobsleigh group that inspired “Cool Runnings,” Taufatofua slots into this bracket of the outlier. But for all of the chuckles as his coach, Thomas Jacob, performed down his possibilities Friday, and Taufatofua’s methodical answering of questions equally bringing with it sympathetic laughs at his struggles, the message is this isn’t a gimmick.
“This is not a joke, it’s not a one-time appearance,” mentioned Steve Grundmann, the top of sport for the Royal Tonga Ski Federation. “We want something consistent, durable. We want to open doors, we want to recruit Tongans, Polynesians, to do the sports they love.”
He was born in Australia, however grew up in Tonga. And as he detailed his backstory, his rationalization for this outstanding aim of in search of to encourage a nation comes from two pillars of motivation. Firstly, as a little one he liked rugby, however having performed for 4 years, he was by no means given a likelihood on the sector. “As a kid I was the smallest, the skinniest, the shortest, the slowest kid in school. It told me I am resilient, I don’t give up … and I needed better coaches.” And then there was his job as a youth employee, serving to homeless kids. “I learnt from them the power of the human spirit to go on when times are tough,” he mentioned. “I worked for 10 years with homeless kids and I have to share their knowledge with the world.”
The Olympic hearth in him was lit again in 1996 when Paea Wolfgramm got here again from Atlanta with the silver medal in tremendous heavyweight boxing. He remembers standing on the aspect of the highway, as Wolfgramm drove previous within the open-top automotive. He thought Wolfgramm regarded him within the eye. The dream began. In Rio, he competed in Taekwondo. He ended up lasting simply six minutes, shedding 16-1, however shot to world prominence for his flag-bearing exploits within the opening ceremony.
Then he determined to show to the Pyeongchang Games and set about qualifying. “This journey for me has been the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life,” he mentioned. “I wanted to seek out essentially the most tough factor I may discover and on a private degree it was cross nation snowboarding. I am not a distance athlete, I do not know a lot about snow however I am studying.
“The aim was to qualify in a one-year timeframe. It was a nice thought on the time. After I advised the world, I discovered how onerous it was to grow to be a cross nation skier at an Olympic degree. I’ve had 12 weeks on snow in my entire life, it will likely be 13 if the race takes me a week to complete… hopefully not!”
He learnt on curler skis, recognised by the International Ski Federation, and he had 4 runs underneath the 300-point qualifying goal however then alternatives dried up and he wanted a additional one on snow. He crowd-funded his method over to Europe, and after three failed makes an attempt, he accomplished the journey in Iceland, scoring 280 factors. Olympic dream realised. “I do that publically, I succeed publically. But I additionally fail publically as nicely however I present folks they will fail, and nonetheless be comfortable once they fail and rise up and giggle, strive once more and perhaps fail once more. That’s the message.”
Pita Taufatofua, Tonga’s shirtless Olympic flag bearer, braves the chilly as he trains for cross-country snowboarding forward of the 2018 Winter Games.
As he confronted the media right here on Wednesday, questions flitted between the serious and the absurd. He spoke concerning the present devastation again in Tonga following Cyclone Gita, and his hopes to assist there. Then the tone of the information convention shifted to Valentine’s Day, his rising fan base of admirers and what they will do to catch his eye. “I am married to the game, so perhaps grow to be a sport,” he answered.
But it was concerning the Olympics and questions on Tonga the place he appeared most snug. He talked animatedly concerning the Olympic Creed. “It’s about wrestle,” he said. “The man who will get a gold medal will burn his lungs till he collapses on the end line, the identical goes for the man who finishes final, none of them will surrender.” One of his followers on Instagram — he now has 166,000 folk keeping an eye on him — sent him a message saying they want to compete for the British Virgin Islands at Beijing 2022 in cross-country skiing. “I really feel like I’ve executed my job, I really feel I’ve completed one thing.”
He is totally conscious that some folks will solely bear in mind his Olympic exploits for his topless, oiled-up tactic, however there may be seemingly a deeply serious aspect to him, one in contact together with his Tongan blood. “If my ancestors can sail throughout the Pacific Ocean for a thousand years, then I can stroll by a gap ceremony with out a shirt on for 25 minutes and symbolize a thousand-year heritage. The final 50, 60 years that is after we’ve been advised to put on; I need to symbolize 1,000 years of historical past.”
Little is predicted from him on Friday, as he has not registered a time underneath 54 minutes within the 15km freestyle. But he’s already one of many tales of those Games. He has plans for the longer term, perhaps a third Games in a sport involving water, however he desires the world to know he isn’t simply the topless flag-bearer. His mission is rather more than that.
“I will not win a medal on Friday, however in 4 years somebody from Tonga may, in eight years somebody from the Pacific may,” he said. “But extra importantly these watching within the Pacific, they will have entry to one thing they by no means knew existed earlier than. That’s why I am right here and put myself by the problem of a sport that did not align bodily with me in any respect. That’s why I did it, to open these doorways.”