There's a lot about the 2018 Winter Olympics to be excited about, but perhaps nothing is more thrilling this year than the return of Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua. If you're asking yourself, "Who is Pita Taufatofua, and how in the world am I supposed to pronounce that name?" you're definitely not alone. To say the least, Taufatofua's rise to Olympic fame has been, well, a bit unconventional.
Pita Taufatofua first entered the spotlight during the 2016 Summer Olympics, not for his performance in the martial arts category in which he was competing, but for his role as an oiled up flag-bearer with abs that made you forget what you were even watching and just stare, because there's no way that's human.
Taufatofua fans everywhere have reason to rejoice for the 2018 Winter Olympics: Having lost in his opening taekwondo match during the Rio Summer Olympics, Taufatofua turned to another sport to compete in to chase his Olympic dreams. He's taken up cross-country skiing as his new sport, and after two years of training, he's officially qualified to compete in Pyeongchang this year — mind you, he qualified on the last possible day of qualifications.
Two years earlier than most would have expected, our favorite shirtless, oiled-up flag-bearer will be back, and that in itself is a reason to watch the opening ceremony.
Taufatofua was born in Australia, but he lives in Tonga, a Polynesian sovereign state known for swaying palm trees and pristine beaches. It's not exactly the most likely place for a cross-country Olympian to come into his own, but Taufatofua doesn't exactly seem like the most conventional person in general, so it all works out.
Although his shirtless entrance during the opening ceremonies for the 2016 Summer Olympics caused quite the stir among viewers, Taufatofua's actual athletic performance left something to be desired. He was quickly knocked out in the first round of the heavyweight taekwondo competition by the Iranian Sajjad Mardani.
While pretty much every athlete would have either continued to compete in the same sport or bowed out entirely, our unlikely hero Taufatofua decided to pursue an entirely different path toward Olympic glory.
As a cross-country skier, Taufatofua will be the second Tongan ever to compete in the Winter Olympics.
TIME reports that, in an interview with the Olympic Channel, Taufatofua explained his desire to take on "the hardest sport possible, because I needed a new challenge." What he found in cross-country skiing was exactly what he wanted. He explained,
You know, look at the conditions, it’s like freezing, it’s negative a million degrees, and then you’ve got to put your body through something really challenging.
Remember the movie Cool Runnings, inspired by the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the Olympics? Yeah, this is basically that. Apparently, Taufatofua had to pull his very own Cool Runnings-esque training strategy, finding creative ways to train on terrain that literally doesn't have snow on the ground. He used roller skis, set up a crowdfunding site to raise money to compete, and away he went.
A series of posts on Taufatofoa's Instagram account revealed just how harrowing and unlikely his journey to the Olympics really was.
First, he missed the flight that would have brought him to his qualifications, and in the aftermath, he wrote in an Instagram post,
So here I am sitting at Istanbul airport missing the race that could have possibly gotten me to the Olympics. It was always going to be a long shot but I had to give it a shot and I did.
Next, he heard of another qualifications event in the Arctic Circle, so he and some friends tried unsuccessfully to drive through a blizzard to get to the event. In another Instagram post, he wrote,
We drove for hours only able to see just in front of the car. I have failed more times than I have succeeded, [but] I don’t fear failure. I fear not trying.
Then, defeating all odds, Taufatofua announced that he'd actually qualified for the Olympics, and the Instagram he posted is, I have to admit, worthy of goosebumps.
On the last day of my Olympic qualification, at the end of the world, I said a little prayer before my race and then a miracle happened!
I'm not going to lie, I'm 100 percent rooting for this guy, and not just because his abs take my breath away.