Taekwondo is not a winter sport; a fact that has fans a bit confused after seeing Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua enter the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies at the Winter Olympics on Friday.
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Taufatofua competed in the martial art of Taekwondo, but now, he’s hitting the snow as a cross-country skier.
He may laugh along with people who ask him “will you use coconut oil as ski wax?”, but making it to the Olympics in cross-country skiing is no small feat. Especially for someone who comes from a country with no snow.
At the time that he decided to pursue his Winter Olympics goal, according to Grand Stand Central, Taufatofua had under a year until the 2018 Opening Ceremonies. He’d never seen snow until 2016, and the first time he ever put on skis was January 2017.
Why did he choose cross-country skiing to begin with? Pita tells Grand Stand Central, “I chose cross-country skiing because I had a newfound love for snow and it was the hardest sport possible I could think of. I wanted a challenge. I wanted to see if I could qualify for a new sport within a year and with a sport that was extremely challenging but also a sport I respected a lot.”
When it came to training, the Tongan athlete had to get inventive. “I trained mainly on roller skis. I would also tie pieces of wood to my feet and run on the sand to try and find balance. It was very difficult :)”, he tells the outlet.
Taufatofua didn’t leave much time to qualify, and according to People, he “just barely managed” to qualify for the Games several weeks ago.
He tells People, “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’ve been a fighter since I was five. I get in the ring and I kick people and people kick me back. But this is a distance sport where you have to hold this certain level of pain for up to an hour, then cross the finish line and you just die.”
While he’s determined, the Tongan athlete does not have the highest hopes when it comes to final standings. “I just scraped by to qualify,” he laughs. “So I’m not sure if I’ll be fighting to come in last or second to last or third to last, but I’ll be fighting — until the end.”
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Taufatofua was eliminated in his opening round by Iranian athlete Sajjad Mardani. He performed well at the Olympic Qualification Tournament, though, winning his semi-final 4-3 and winning in the final against the fighter who was, at that time, the 15th ranked in the world. Taufatofua tried to qualify for the Olympics two times before finally making the team in 2016.