After failing to bring home a medal as Tonga’s lone entry in taekwondo during the Rio Olympics in 2016, Pita Taufatofua is hoping to get one in a sport he’s just starting to learn: cross-country skiing.
The name might not ring a bell outside of the tiny Polynesian island in the South Pacific Ocean, but people might remember the shirtless and oiled man who carried the Tongan flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Surprisingly, the 34-year-old is already close to his dream as he only needs one race to qualify for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month.
Taufatofua said that he’s done some crazy things in his life but trying to learn a new sport at his age and competing against the best in the world is right up there.
“I’m, like, what the hell am I doing here? I’m freezing my ass off,” he said.
In fact, he hasn’t seen any snow in his life except after meeting coach Thomas Jacob who allowed the Tongan to stay with his family while training. The journey has not been easy. He admitted that he’s down $30,000 in debt and injured himself in places that taekwondo seemed like a walk in the park in comparison.
“I’m from the sand and the coconuts. What is this white stuff over here?” he quipped.
He couldn’t practice with skis in his tropical hometown of Brisbane, Australia. To compensate, he trained with roller-skis, which he described as designed by the devil.
According to WSJ, quoting Bill Mallon, a historian for the Olympics, it’s not uncommon for athletes who competed in the Summer Games to cross-over to the Winter Games. However, this would be the first time a taekwondo contingent will try his luck at cross-country skier. To do that, Taufatofua needs to get acclimated to the cold and also take 30 pounds off his weight to give himself a chance to go more than the six minutes he lasted before losing out at the 2016 Rio Games.