Only the second Winter Olympian in Tonga’s history, Pita Taufatofua is set to join an elite club of athletes to compete at the Summer and Winter Games, having represented his country in taekwondo at Rio 2016.
In a reinvention worthy of a Hollywood script, the Tongan taekwondo athlete will compete as a cross-country skier at PyeongChang 2018.
Having rejected movie offers and modelling contracts after his eye-catching displays in Rio, the Australia-born 34-year-old – who had never seen snow until two years ago – becomes just the second athlete from the Pacific nation to qualify for a Winter Games.
Taufatofua had to battle through four Olympic cycles before becoming Tonga's first Olympic taekwondo competitor at Rio 2016, so making it to “PyeongChang was simple by comparison.”
“It still feels quite strange actually being here, because it took me 20 years to get to Rio, and just one year to get here,” the former youth worker said. "It’s just an honour. I mean, how many countries in the Pacific get to go to a Winter Games?”
Flying the flag for Tonga
As he did in Rio, Taufatofua will carry Tonga's flag at the Opening Ceremony as the country's sole athlete at the Games. But he will certainly be opting for warmer clothing at the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium than he did in Rio.
After the Opening Ceremony in Rio, images of Taufatofua – oiled up, shirtless and wearing a traditional Tongan skirt at the head of the country's tiny delegation – went viral on social media, thrusting him into minor celebrity.
Eighteen months on, Taufatofua presents a much leaner figure than the muscular martial artist who competed in the 80kg division. After Rio, he rejected various offers of modelling gigs and film roles, choosing instead to ponder his next big challenge.
He opted for the gruelling discipline of cross-country skiing because it was the “hardest” thing he could think of doing.
Training on sand
With no snow in Tonga or near his Brisbane base in Australia, Taufatofua's training regimen began with running on sand dunes with wooden planks strapped to his feet.
“We had to mimic being on snow while not being on snow,” he said. “We’d strap pieces of wood to our feet and run on the sand just to get the balance and some sort of glide.”
Taufatofua's cross-country skiing adventure may only be a brief interlude before he refocuses on taekwondo, a sport that has given him six broken bones, three torn ligaments and hundreds of hours of rehabilitation.
Indeed, he is already thinking about the possibility of a third successive Olympic appearance at Tokyo 2020.
“Taekwondo and skiing, now they’re all in my blood,” he said. “I may go for the magic three [in Tokyo]. It’s never been done [by a Tongan] before.”