Many athletes use the perfect training conditions in the Olympiaregion Seefeld to get fit for the next sporting season. So does Pita Taufatofua, whom we met during his training session in Leutasch.
Pita Taufatofua (34 years) comes from Tonga, an archipelago in the North-east of New Zealand. The only thing that shimmers there are white sand beaches – but no snow. Despite this Pita is the first cross-country skier competing for Tonga at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
A Taekwondo practitioner on skis
An odd fact: For just about all his life the 34-year-old’s main sport has been the martial art of Taekwondo. And he is not unknown in this area: in February 2016 he qualified for the Summer Olympics in Rio and caused an uproar as he carried the flag for his team in traditional costume and with an oiled upper body. Wearing a tight grass skirt, he put his muscles on display to the world. Pita became a celebrity and the number of his Facebook and Instagram followers rose from near zero to nearly 150,000.
Taekwondo wasn’t enough for him
After the Summer Games in Rio, the Royal Ski Association contacted Pita and only shortly after that, Steve Grundman (Director the Tonga Ski Team) convinced Pita of the idea and the challenge. The Ski Association was still looking for a male cross-country skier. Regarding the short time until the Olympics, they started to look around in other disciplines and decided to go with Taekwondo.
The dream soon became reality and the goal was defined: “I want to be the first Tongan who qualifies for the Summer and Winter Olympics.” This dream holds some tough challenges even for his muscular body.
Pita first set his eyes on snow two years ago. “That was an experience,” he says. “I like snow. At least I do now.”
Only a year after this cool encounter, in 2017, he chose a new dream: he wanted to become a cross-country skier. “Okay, you have to be a bit crazy to have an idea like that,” admits the athlete when we meet him in Leutasch. That’s where he is training. On cross-country skis – he qualified for the Games just a week before that.
The transformation: From Taekwondo practitioner to a cross-country skier
The first task was to get rid of 15 kgs of muscle that had been needed for Taekwondo. Cross-country skiers need endurance – and every unnecessary gram, whether muscle or fat, is a burden which weighs on performance. During the summer of 2017, he lost 15 kg muscle mass. Pita achieved this with a combination of a change in training and nutrition and iron discipline and moved one step closer to his dream. He trained on roller skis on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in his homeland. But there was no snow to be found there.
The first test: FIS Nordic Ski World Cup
Finally, he made it to the Nordic Ski World Championships in Lahti in an effort to qualify for Pyeongchang. All eyes were on him at this important event as the well-known “Rio-Boy” Pita tried to turn his hand to cross-country skiing. But the 153rd place in the 1600m spring was not enough. The Olympics slipped out of reach. But in January 2018 at a race in Iceland the impossible happened: he managed the Olympic qualification norm and got his ticket for the Winter Games.
He still chuckles when he thinks about this day. The self-titled “Coconut-Fighter” showed them all. All those who had thought that no-one from a “no-snow country” could manage such a feat. “People are afraid to try something new, to have fresh dreams, to attempt new goals. And they are afraid to fail. I don’t have these fears.” We were impressed as he told us his story in Leutasch.
But the athlete admits that it still feels a little bit like he is dreaming. “I just wanted to try out a winter sport once and thought that cross-country skiing looked like it could be fun. Now suddenly I’m a part of this sport and have fallen in love with it,” he enthuses.
Olympic Winter Games 2018 in Pyeongchang
At the Olympic Winter Games 2018 in Pyeongchang, the world could admire Pita in his famous “outfit”: the naked, oiled upper body – despite the cold temperatures! He also successfully mastered the 15 kilometer skating race – we would not have expected anything else.
We are sure that we will see and hear a lot more from the cross-country skier from Tonga in the future.
Next Stop: FIS Nordic World Ski Championships 2019 in Seefeld? #RoadtoSeefeld2019
Photos: Laura Zobernig, Tonga Ski Team, Royal Tonga Ski Federation