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The true story of the ‘Hot Tongan’

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In the five years since his bare, oily chest made him an instant Olympic sensation, Pita Taufatofua, the Shirtless Tongan Flag Bearer, has been busy.

He picked up an entirely foreign sport, cross-country skiing; learned it via YouTube and 5 a.m. roller-skiing sessions; hopped to a dozen countries in eight weeks; ran up $40,000 in credit card debt; drove through an Icelandic snowstorm to reach an Arctic fjord; and, on the last day possible, qualified for the Winter Olympics.

He went shirtless again in PyeongChang despite freezing temps, and on late-night TV shows in between Olympics. He wrote a book, schmoozed with Prince Harry, worked for UNICEF, visited the United Nations, and spoke at MIT alongside Justin Trudeau.

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Then he picked up a third sport, kayak; tried to qualify for a third consecutive Olympics under the tutelage of a coach who’s literally never paddled a kayak before; failed, but fought through a broken rib to qualify for Tokyo in his original sport, taekwondo.

If it all sounds a bit crazy, well, yeah. “It’s beyond crazy,” his coach, “Master Paul” Sitapa, says with a smile.

Beneath the craziness, though, is a deeper purpose.

Some would assume this is a series of stunts, abuses of a byzantine Olympic qualification system, the goal to reach sport’s pinnacle and convert fleeting spotlights into fame. But Pita would push back on that assumption. “My goal was never fame. And it still isn’t,” he said in an interview last month.

Instead, he has a story to tell, a story he told even before his viral shirtless fame, about a lifetime of struggle and injury and failure, about “the spirit of overcoming challenge and pushing through adversity.”

“And that, to me, is what the Olympics is about,” he says. “That's what drives me, that's why I'm still going. It doesn't end.”

Tonga's flagbearer Pita Nikolas Taufatofua leads his delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. / AFP / PEDRO UGARTE        (Photo credit should read PEDRO UGARTE/AFP via Getty Images)
Tonga's flagbearer Pita Taufatofua leads his delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (PEDRO UGARTE/AFP via Getty Images)

‘I’m going to be an Olympian’

Pita was 12 in 1996 when “The Tongan Warrior,” boxer Paea Wolfgramm, fought for Olympic gold in Atlanta. Seventeen time zones and 7,000 miles away, Pita and friends would crowd around a window, peering into the one house in their Tongan community with a TV. Goats and cows roamed behind them.

Wolfgramm won silver that summer, and Tonga, a tiny South Pacific nation of 100,000 people, welcomed its first-ever Olympic medalist home in style. Wolfgramm cruised down a main road on a float. Pita and some classmates, sporting their gray school uniforms, lined the street, each holding a sign with one letter, together spelling Paea Wolfgramm’s name. Pita held the “P.” As Wolfgramm cruised by, he waved. Pita glowed.

And, he says, he thought to himself: I’m going to become an Olympian.

He was already a budding taekwondoka at the time, but his family — parents and six siblings — had always channeled their meager resources toward education. At one point, they all lived together in a one-bedroom house, with scarce electricity, no running water, and fewer than three meals per day. The parents saved money to put the children through college. Pita went off to the University of Queensland in Australia to study engineering.

Even while there, however, that roadside thought stuck with him. He remembers borrowing a VHS tape at the library. Its title was something to the effect of Greatest Moments of the Olympic Games. The film chronicled underdogs, people who finished races despite injuries, who, in Pita’s words, “never quit.”

Pita sat with bulging headphones over his ears, engrossed. And he felt something he didn’t often feel, emotions that only tickle him when he sees humans overcoming long odds. His eyelids moistened. “What the hell?” he thought, wondering about the source of the tears.

He realized he was touched by “the will to keep on going.” He vowed to carry it with him on his own journey. And he’d need it.

Pita’s long road to Rio

Taufatofua’s first run at the Olympics ended before it began. A taekwondo competition in Thailand offered qualification to the winner. Pita, however, couldn’t afford the trip.

Over the coming years, he worked odd jobs. His main one at a shelter for underserved youth gave him both the funds and the positivity to push on. In 2007, he made it to a regional qualification tournament in New Caledonia. In the men’s heavyweight division, only a New Zealander stood between Pita and Beijing 2008. He says he took a 1-0 lead — and then fractured his foot. He kept fighting, but lost, 5-1. Master Paul, his coach, training partner and friend since their adolescence, pushed him in a wheelchair from a local hospital onto the plane home. Pita sat in bed for months, more or less unable to walk.

His third Olympic attempt, four years later, took him to Korea to train with the sport’s elite. A church preschool allowed Pita and Paul to sleep on the floor of its classroom — as long as they were up and out before dawn, before the kiddos arrived. Pita camped under a toddler-sized desk, surrounded by colorful furniture, for six months. He jetted off to a world qualifying tournament in Azerbaijan, more prepared than ever before ... and promptly tore a knee ligament. Eight weeks later at the regional qualifier, fighting on one leg against a Samoan, he lost again, and left on crutches.

“There were certainly low points,” Pita says, and 2007 and 2011 were certainly two of them. “But there were never ‘no’ points.” He kept training, working, training – even in 2016, when, right before yet another Oceania qualifying tournament, he lost a job; his car broke down; and so did his relationship. He scrounged around for money to fund a trip to Papua New Guinea, the site of the qualifier, but came up empty. “Everything was going wrong,” he recalls.

A woman came through last-minute with plane tickets. Pita remembers scrambling from a sauna to a taxi to the taekwondo facility and making weight with one minute to spare. This time, in the final, his body held up. The match went to “golden point,” tied after three rounds, next point wins. Pita kicked. The scoreboard flashed. Master Paul jumped and screamed. Pita “lost it.” And he felt a surge of emotion not dissimilar to what he’d felt in the library all those years earlier, but this time infinitely more intense.

“That was the moment,” Pita says. Only one camera captured it, but no matter. The Olympics, months later, were “a fantastic experience,” he says, and fame has brought him opportunities he never dreamed of, but the decades-long Olympic pursuit wasn’t about some shiny object (or torso) at the end of it. It was about the journey. About “overcoming my own inner challenges,” he says.

And that’s why, even before departing Rio, he eyed another one.

PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 16:  Pita Taufatofua of Tonga approaches the finish line during the Cross-Country Skiing Men's 15km Free at Alpensia Cross-Country Centre on February 16, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images,)
Pita Taufatofua of Tonga approaches the finish line during the Cross-Country Skiing Men's 15km Free at Alpensia Cross-Country Centre on February 16, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images,)

Pita’s wild ride to PyeongChang

Taufatofua had only seen snow once in his life when, in January of 2017, he flew to Germany to learn how to cross-country ski. “I chose it because it made no sense,” he later told the Guardian. “I love these challenges.” The more difficult, the more attractive they are.

After initial lessons on snow, Pita trained at a Brisbane, Australia, beach; and on roller-skis at a local park, where he ate fistfuls of concrete. To qualify, he needed five satisfactory finishes at official races. He secured four via something of a loophole, at roller-skiing events in Colombia. With the qualification deadline nearing in January 2018, he needed one more on snow. And that’s when obstacles started arising at every turn.

Pita, who couldn’t even afford his own pair of skis, traveled to Turkey, then Poland, then Armenia, accumulating debt as he went. In Poland, he tumbled to the snow mid-race, lost a ski down a hill, found it after a lengthy search, and finished 45 minutes off the winning pace. Armenia wasn’t much better.

His last chance, he thought, was a race in Croatia the very next day. He taxied from Armenia to Georgia in darkness, intent on catching a pre-sunrise flight to Istanbul, Turkey, where he’d then catch a flight to Zagreb, Croatia, where he’d then drive 80 minutes to a tiny western village, where the race would start shortly after he arrived. The first two legs of the trip went smoothly. The third never happened, because his sprint through Istanbul’s airport for the connecting flight was just a few minutes too slow.

He next flew to London, where his brother practices law, to reset. He realized there was one more last shot, in Isafjordur, Iceland, a tiny northwest town facing Greenland on the Arctic Circle. Pita used his brother’s airline miles to fly to Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital. He rented a car, got held up by avalanches, but completed the 10-hour drive at the third attempt. He skied the race of his life, and qualified amid a rush of joy and relief.

When he got to PyeongChang, he told reporters that his goal was to “finish before they turn the lights off, that’s number one. Don’t ski into a tree, that’s number two.” He knew he couldn’t compete with the world’s best, the ones with financial resources, and experience, and, well, snow. He didn’t care, because he’d dared himself to do something remarkable, and he’d done it.

Taking aim at Tokyo

Realistically, Taufatofua has never been a medal contender. He entered Rio ranked 87th globally in his taekwondo weight class, and lost in the first round by mercy rule. Five years later, he’s ranked 361st. He reached Tokyo in part because each continent is guaranteed one athlete per weight class, and each country can only enter two fighters at Oceania’s qualification tournament, and Australia and New Zealand chose weight classes other than Taufatofua’s 80+kg. He had to win just one match, against Papua New Guinea’s Steven Tommy, and he did. “We train to win,” he says when asked if he thinks he has a shot to medal in Japan, but he surely won’t.

An Olympic Games, though, is more than medals. Taufatofua’s chase seems to be less about the destination, more about the thrill of the emotional roller-coster that the chase presents. After PyeongChang, he didn’t target taekwondo glory in Tokyo; he targeted a third sport. Master Paul began watching kayakers on YouTube and reading about the craft. Pita began paddling in a recreational kayak about three times as heavy as a competition kayak — and on a river infested with bull sharks. (He says he’s bumped into two.)

At his first international race, he could barely steady his boat at the starting line. His entire heat sped out ahead of him. The leader finished in under 34 seconds. Pita was almost 25 seconds back.

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He injured a rib before the key kayak qualifier last February, and missed the mark that would’ve sent him to Tokyo. Less than two weeks later, he won the taekwondo event and punched his ticket. Nonetheless, throughout the pandemic, he spent a majority of his sport-specific training time on kayak. Travel restrictions ultimately barred him from a race in Siberia that represented his final chance. But still, he splits his time between the two sports. He’s holding out hope that he’ll somehow find his way into the 200-meter kayak sprint at the Games.

“Never say never,” he says with a grin. “If we stick our head around the corner and there's a [kayak] lane there and I have to go and jump in and swim, maybe they'll feel sorry for me and throw a boat underneath me. We're gonna keep training as if that's going to happen. Because we've never given up on anything in our lives.”

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So he powers through four training sessions a day, at least one on the water, at and around his Brisbane home. The abode is “dedicated to one thing, and that's the Olympics,” he says. He’s now a motivational speaker, but his career, really, is “Olympian,” and he doesn’t see that career ending anytime soon. The challenges still energize him. The accomplishments, especially the unlikely ones, still ignite something inside of him.

He says he doesn’t know if he’ll be Tonga’s flag-bearer again in Tokyo; it’s not his decision and doesn’t particularly matter to him. What he does know is that, post-Tokyo, he’ll continue his kayak pursuit. His event, the 200-meter sprint, will no longer be on the Olympic program at Paris 2024. But he’s fallen in love with the sport.

“Where else can you go and not wear a shirt and just wear flip flops and feel at home?” he raves.

Perhaps more importantly, he set out to confront a challenge; and Pita Taufatofua doesn’t just ditch a challenge after one failure to meet it.

But he also pauses before answering a question about what’s next. He turns to Master Paul, and says, mischievously: “You never know, ay coach?”

“You never know what's coming,” Paul says with a laugh.

Pita turns back toward the camera, and says: “He might be a gymnastics coach next.”

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