Olympics: Tongan Taufatofua ready to live the dream again

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Having eschewed movie offers and modeling contracts after a telegenic appearance at the Rio Olympics, Tongan taekwondo fighter Pita Taufatofua will compete as a cross-country skier at Pyeongchang, a reinvention worthy of a Hollywood script.

FIS Nordic Ski World Championships - Men's Cross Country - Qualification - Lahti, Finland - 23/2/17 - Pita Taufatofua of Tonga competes. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The Australia-born 34-year-old had never seen snow until two years ago but will become just the second athlete from the balmy Pacific nation to qualify for a Winter Games.

Taufatofua had to battle through four Olympic cycles to become Tonga’s first Olympic taekwondo competitor at Rio, so making it to Pyeongchang was a doddle 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 told Reuters at the Pyeongchang athletes’ village on Thursday.

“But, you know, it’s just an honor. I mean, how many countries in the Pacific get to go to a Winter Games?”

As he did at Rio, Taufatofua will carry Tonga’s flag at Friday’s opening ceremony as the country’s sole athlete at the Games. But he will be much more warmly clothed at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.

The image of Taufatofua -- oiled up, shirtless and wearing a traditional Tongan skirt at the head of the country’s tiny delegation at Rio’s Maracana stadium -- went viral on social media, thrusting him into minor celebrity.

His appearance at the taekwondo tournament was over quickly, however, with a 16-1 thrashing in his first match.

Eighteen months on, Taufatofua presents a much leaner figure than the muscular martial artist that competed in the 80kg division.

But in the birth country of taekwondo, he was more than happy to break out a few spinning kicks for the benefit of a scrum of South Korean Olympic volunteers, who beamed as they snapped photos at the athletes’ village.

Offers of paid modeling gigs and film roles were swept aside after Rio, however, as Taufatofua pondered his next great challenge.

The grueling discipline of cross-country skiing proved an easy choice. It was the “hardest” thing he could think of doing.

With no snow in Tonga or near his Brisbane base in Australia, Taufatofua’s training regime 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.”

Financing his second Olympic dream was also a constant battle and he started a crowd-funding campaign to pay for training in proper northern hemisphere snow.

He failed in his first six attempts to qualify but reached the mark in his final chance, only weeks ago in Iceland.

With only enough money to book one-way tickets to the Iceland qualifier, he ended up having to borrow money from his brother to get a plane home.

Taufatofua’s cross-country skiing adventure may only be a quick diversion before he re-focuses on taekwondo, a sport that has given him six broken bones, three torn ligaments and hundreds of hours of rehabilitation.

A third successive Olympic appearance at the 2020 summer Games in Tokyo may be on the agenda.

“Taekwondo and skiing, now they’re all in my blood,” he said.

“Tokyo, I may go for the magic three. It’s never been done (in Tonga) before.”

Editing by Toby Davis