“I won’t freeze,” he proclaimed before the event. “I am from Tonga. We sailed across the Pacific. This is nothing.”
Indeed, Taufatofua, an unlikely competitor in these Games, had already overcome more than a little cold on his way to PyeongChang. A taekwondo athlete in Rio, he qualified for the trip to South Korea in cross-country skiing only a few weeks ago after failing in his first six qualifying attempts. He initially had no idea how he would get to South Korea. But with a crowd-funding campaign and assistance from his brother, he made it back.
“We sacrificed everything to be here,” he told the Olympic Channel. “Financially I’m in the worst position ever, but I’m the happiest ever.”
The Tongan’s trip to Rio was short, if well-covered; it ended with a loss in his first taekwondo match. But his appearance in the Opening Ceremonies helped accomplish one of his objectives.
“For us it was important to get our culture out to the world,” Taufatofua said on NBC during the Rio Games. “I said to them I want to march in what our ancestors wore 200 years ago, and this is what it was.”
Taufatofua, 34, will become just the second Winter Olympian from Tonga, making Friday’s international spotlight even more notable.
“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,” Taufatofua, a former youth worker, told Reuters. “But, you know, it’s just an honor. I mean, how many countries in the Pacific get to go to a Winter Games?”
He is the sole Tongan in these Games, and had not experienced snow until two years ago. Still, reducing Taufatofua to his sheen and his sculpted body does a disservice to his dedication.
“The truth isn’t glamorous, it isn’t shiny,” he wrote on social media during his previous brush with celebrity. “The truth is that I have had more injuries than I can count, that I have lost more matches than I have won, that I have gone through massive financial hardship and lost very close relationships in pursuit of the dream. What I pride myself in is not my skill in my craft, there are others who will always be better. … What I pride myself in is that I do not quit, I do not stop!”
And so he didn’t stop after the Rio Games, deciding to find a winter sport despite his southern Pacific heritage.
“After the Summer Games, I said, ‘You know what? I want a new challenge. I want to find something that’s the hardest possible sport I can think of and see if it’s possible to get Tonga qualified within a year,’ ” Taufatofua told People.
Which is why he learned how to cross-country ski, something he called “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” according to the Olympic news service.
“Most of my training was on roller skis [short skis on wheels], which don’t have brakes,” he said. “There were so many wipeouts — cuts, scrapes and bruises. Probably every week I’d lose half an elbow or graze my knee or land on my face.”
He also strapped pieces of wood to his feet and ran on sand to glide and get a feel for balance. Now he’s in South Korea, ready for Olympic thrills and whatever comes next, in and out of athletics. According to his personal website, the Australian-born 34-year-old spent “his whole adult life working in homeless shelters with the underprivileged to show and teach people the power of self belief.”
Since his Rio moment, he has turned down the kinds of movie and modeling offers that probably will pick up again with his second trip through the Olympic spotlight. After PyeongChang, he will resume training in taekwondo, a sport in which he has broken six bones, torn three ligaments and endured endless of rehabilitation, with an eye on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. If he makes it, well, look for the oiled flag-bearer.
“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind,” he told NBC. “They just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”
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