- Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless Tongan who’s become an internet sensation, is at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, this time as a cross-country skier.
- Taufatofua completed a remarkable transition from taekwondo to cross-country skiing, learning to snow ski in just three months.
- He qualified for the Olympics with four races on roller skis and then finally qualified on his fourth attempt on snow skis.
Nearly two years ago, Pita Taufatofua became a sensation at the Rio Olympics when he showed up at the opening ceremonies shirtless and slathered in oil, carrying Tonga’s flag.
Taufatofua competed in taekwondo unremarkably, losing his only match in six minutes. Nonetheless, his smile and appearance made him a fun staple of the games.
Now, Taufatofua is back in the spotlight at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, competing as a cross-country skier. And yes, he was still shirtless at Friday’s opening ceremony.
Taufatofua’s journey is one of the most incredible at the Winter Olympics. As documented by The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen and Joshua Robinson, Taufatofua wanted a new challenge, so he decided to pick up a new sport and try to make the Winter Olympics. He told Robinson and Cohen that he often makes impulsive decisions.
There have been Summer Olympians who transitioned to winter games, and cross-country is a popular choice, but nobody has ever switched from taekwondo to cross-country skiing, never mind doing it in a warm-weather nation.
According to the Journal, in an effort to expand the Olympic field of the sport and allow more races from warm-weather countries, the International Ski Federation began accepting points accrued in roller-skiing events – wooden skies on sets of wheels. Racers would need five finishes that satisfied a points system to qualify for the games.
The only problem for Taufatofua was that he had never been on skis or been in the snow and he had little money. Instead of driving 30 hours to the nearest mountain range (Taufatofua lives in Australia), he trained on the beach on the roller skis, saying he wrecked his body trying to get a handle on it.
Taufatofua qualified in four roller events, but when the roller-skiing schedule dried up, he had to go compete in snow.
He found a trainer and started a GoFundMe page in November to go train in Austria, learning everything from technique, to the rules of cross-country skiing, to how to wax his skis. Taufatofua and his team trained in the morning and the dark, using their iPhone flashlights to see at night, according to the Journal.
- Clive Brunskill/Getty
Among Taufatofua’s challenges was dropping weight, which is partially why there haven’t been any other taekwondo-to-cross-country skiing converts – the body types are too different.
According to Robinson and Cohen, in a follow-up story, Taufatofua failed in three races on snow, but had the race of his life in Iceland in late January to qualify for the Olympics.
“This is a crazy story even for me,” he told The Journal. “‘I’m like, what the hell am I doing here? I’m freezing my ass off.”
He added: “I don’t fear failure. I fear not trying.”
It’s unlikely that Taufatofua has any shot at medaling in Pyeongchang, but merely making the games under such unlikely circumstances is a testament to his skill and work ethic.