One of my favorite parts of the Olympics has always been the Opening Ceremonies — watching every country march in, proudly in uniform, carrying their flag. It's a parade comprised entirely of people living their dreams and yes, I do get very emotional, but I have a feeling I won't be the only person catching feelings during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Why? Because the famous 2016 Olympics Tongan flag bearer just qualified for the Winter Olympics. Get ready to swoon and cry simultaneously. Swry? Croon? Eh, we'll work on that later.
Pita Taufatofua first represented Tonga in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics and made, uh, an impression, let's say, on viewers across the world. And by impression I mean Taufatofua literally made headlines with his hotness. Taufatofua strode into Maracana Stadium wearing nothing but a ta’ovala, a traditional Tongan mat worn wrapped around one's waist, and a lot, a lot, like a whole lot of body oil. Pita was glistening. And people noticed.
In 2016, Taufatofua, who was born in Australia, was the first Tongan to compete in the Olympics in taekwondo, a martial art that originated in Korea. After dedicating what he says were 20 years of his life to the sport, the now-34-year-old fought only one bout on the Olympic stage before losing to Iranian Sajjad Mardani 16-1.
Tonga is a tropical Polynesian country comprised of more than 170 islands in the South Pacific where it really, truly, even in this world of climate change craziness, does not snow. Ever. It rarely dips below 60 degree Fahrenheit.
205 countries currently host "National Olympic Committees," thus making them eligible to compete in the worldwide display of athletic prowess. But not every country makes a showing at each competition. When he appears in Pyeongchang, South Korea this February, Taufatofua will be only the second Tongan to ever even make it to a Winter Olympics stage. The first, Fuahea Semi, competed in Men's Luge at Sochi four years ago. He placed 32nd out of 39. In fact, Tonga, renowned for their rugby prowess, has only ever medaled, in any sport, once at the Games — in 1996 in Atlanta, when super heavyweight boxer Paea Wolfgramm won a silver medal for boxing.
But after suffering a first-round defeat in 2016, Taufatofua told the Olympic Channel that he set out to find the most difficult sport to conquer next - and that sport, he determined, was cross-country skiing.
Nordic countries have historically dominated the notoriously draining sport since its inclusion in the Games in 1952 in Oslo. The word "ski" is derived from the Norwegian word for "a split length of wood" (skid), because for centuries, folks in The Great North have used cross-country skiing as a way of simply getting around during extremely difficult and snowy winters. They've been competing in ski races since the 18th century.
That history did not deter Taufatofua, though, who saw snow for the first time just two years ago. After setting his heart on making it to the 2018 Olympics, Taufatofua gave himself just one year to master the sport. He began training on roller blades in his native Tonga and established a GoFundMe, which has since raised over $15,000, to help bolster his Olympic bid. According to Bleacher Report, a ruling by the International Ski Federation allows Olympic hopefuls to garner qualification points roller skiing. It's through this loophole that Taufatofua gained the majority of his eligible points.
And finally, after struggling through seven different potentially qualifying races, Taufatofua qualified at a last-ditch race (in the snow) in Iceland's Arctic Circle yesterday.
"I want to show people through my own endeavors and challenges that they too can step out of their comfort zone and do things that test the limits of their potential, without fear of failure or criticism," Taufatofua told BuzzFeed News. He hopes that this will help Tonga gain international acclaim. Safe to say, he's well on his way.