Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Meeting Mister Tonga

On an August day in 1996, a 12 year-old boy in Tonga lined one of the Pacific island's streets to welcome home a national hero.

It was just days after the Atlanta Olympics, and young Pita Taufatofua wanted a peek at "The Tongan Warrior" of boxing, Paea Wolfgramm, who brought home the nation's first Olympic medal, a silver.

Standing with a paper on which he scribbled "Paea" to catch the eye of Wolfgramm, Taufatofua eventually made eye contact with the elder Olympian, inspiring a dream that became the pre-teen's life mission: to become a next great five-ringed athlete from Tonga.

Twenty years later, Taufatofua's dream came true in Rio 2016 Olympic taekwondo competition, and as reported by The New York Times earlier this year, he converted his Olympic aspirations to become a winter Olympian in cross country skiing at PyeongChang 2018.

Valentine's Day in Korea brought this blogger an option to speak with Taufatofua as part of the Tonga Olympic Team's press conference held in the Main Press Center. About 100 reporters gathered and peppered the 34 year old athlete with questions.

Not surprising more than half of the audience was women.

But to the jovial dismay of some, Taufatofua kept his shirt on (this did not prevent reporters from inquiring about his topless, oiled-up marches as Tonga's official flag bearer in the 2016 and 2018 opening ceremonies). For the latter, the bitter cold PyeongChang evening was easy.

"If my ancestors can sail across the Pacific for one thousand years, not knowing where the next piece of land is going to be, not knowing where their next meal is going to be, going to war, then I can walk for 25 minutes through an Opening Ceremony without a shirt on and represent a thousand years of heritage," said Taufatofua.

Pita and his coach Jacob Thomas explained their goals were more about just getting to Korea than any chance for a medal. Looking for a new challenge after Rio, Taufatofua said he "did not know much about snow" but he started learning in 2017, also training with roller skis on his home island.

"He always tells us he wants to finish," said Thomas.

Taufatofua explained his goals on the cross country course.

"I'll try to finish before they turn the lights off," he joked. "Also, I hope I don't ski into a tree."

Joking aside, in an early-career competition, Taufatofua lost a ski in the first of six laps on a cross country ski course, much to his chagrin. He now works on improving his personal best with each ski entry.

"I [now] try to beat the me of yesterday," said Taufatofua. "If I ignore the me of yesterday, I've won."

He also talked about the recent cyclone that devastated Tonga, recovery efforts for which he intends contributions post-Games, and what inspires him to keep going in cross country in spite of many odds against him.

"The truth is I've had a short time on snow and I won't medal on Friday, but in four years someone from Tonga might, in eight years someone from the Pacific might, but more importantly people from the Pacific, these kids who are watching now, they'll have access to something they never knew existed," said Taufatofua.

When a reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked about his future Olympic aspirations, Taufatofua mentioned Tokyo 2020 is on his radar.

"I've been inside, I have fought, had fights in a taekwondo ring, and coming out to the snow, maybe water's the next, maybe something to do with water," said Taufatofua. "Stay tuned."

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver except flag bearer image by RP Online.

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