Tonga's famous flag bearer Pita Taufatofua achieves his 'impossible dream'

Walking out into Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium, his bare, muscular torso glistening with a generous amount of oil...

Posted: Feb 9, 2018 4:07 PM
Updated: Feb 9, 2018 4:07 PM

Walking out into Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium, his bare, muscular torso glistening with a generous amount of oil, Pita Taufatofua's life changed in an instant.

Carrying Tonga's flag at the 2016 Olympic Games opening ceremony, wearing little more than a traditional Tongan mat around his waist, Taufatofua gained immediate fame -- and plenty of admirers.

It's fair to say his life hasn't been quite the same since.

But of the millions watching around the world, few had any idea of the sacrifice and determination behind Taufatofua's dream of becoming an Olympic athlete.

"It's quite funny because that moment was a really big thing, but it was 20 years of hard work behind that moment just to actually get there," Taufatofua told CNN ahead of the start of the Winter Olympics.

The Tongan braved freezing cold conditions at the Opening Ceremony on Friday to repeat his star turn, waving his country's flag with his torso again liberally oiled.

"It certainly changed my life in many, many different and interesting ways."

Now, not content with being the first person to represent his country in taekwondo at an Olympics, Taufatofua is taking part at the Winter Games in PyeongChang as Tonga's first cross-country skier.

And with only about three months' experience on snow.

Winter dream

Born in Australia but raised in Tonga, Taufatofua announced his plans to try to qualify for the Winter Olympics' "most difficult sport" in December 2016.

Ahead of his first ever race, he had clocked only four weeks of training on snow.

"When you've got no snow, it's really hard to learn a snow sport so we looked at all the different ways I could mimic being on snow without actually being on snow," he said.

"We found roller skis, I'd strap planks of wood to my feet and run on the beach, just to try and find that balance point, and I'd watch a lot of YouTube and see what the professionals were doing, and I'd try and mimic that mentally in my head."

A wry smile creeps across Taufatofua's face at the mention of roller skiing -- "quite possibly the worst thing ever invented," he says.

"It's kind of like roller blading but not," he says. "Roller skiing, you can't stop, the only way to stop is to fall and I learnt that the hard way many, many a time."

After his first race, qualification for the Winter Olympics seemed a long shot.

Taufatofua exceeded his own expectations, but even the ultra-confident Tongan momentarily allowed doubt to creep in.

"We had a goal to finish within 12 minutes ... and I did it in six," he recalls.

"I was so far behind all these professional skiers that I thought: 'wow, this is so hard, what have I gotten myself into?'"

'Crazy story'

Aside from trying to come up with the money to fund expensive skis -- Taufatofua has been using rentals for the last year -- plus flights and travel costs, the biggest challenge has been losing weight.

Standing at more than 6 foot 3 inches, Taufatofu tipped the scales at 100 kilograms in Rio. He has since lost 15kg of fat and muscle, although he still weighs at least 20kg more than his competitors.

But of all the difficulties in trying to master a new sport inside a year, nothing could have prepared him for his last race in Iceland in late January -- his final chance at qualifying for PyeongChang.

Traveling with Chilean cross-country skier Yonathan Fernandez and Mexican endurance specialist German Madrazo, a giant snow storm meant Taufatofua's route to the race near -safj-r-ur was blocked by avalanches.

"Yona from Chile, he's this military guy and he's like, 'You know what? We have to just go through the blizzard,'" Taufatofua says. "And so we end up driving for two days trying to get through this blizzard.

"We go eight hours, then we have to come back and try again but we had calculated exactly where those avalanches were and they were 20 kilometers out from the race.

"So we thought that if we could get to where they had blocked off the road, leave the car there and then hike, we could hike 20 kilometers through this blizzard to get to this race, it was our last chance.

"Luckily, on the third day we tried to get through, the roads had just been cleared so we managed to get on through and get to that last race."

READ: 'I can motivate kids in Ghana to chase their dreams

READ: Nationhood and the Olympics -- it's complicated

READ: Olympian aims to get Eritrean on skis

READ: Know your luge from your skeleton

'Impossible dream'

His determination paid off, and with his final result and ranking points from roller skiing races, Taufatofua did enough to qualify for the Winter Games.

"The dream this year was to qualify and to qualify in the year, that was the impossible dream -- I guess I'm going in without pressure," he says.

"I've come in as the last seed so I think I'm the last ranked person there -- so if I get a gold medal, I'll be happy; If I come last, I'll be happy. I made it to the Olympics and I got Tonga to the Olympics."

Visit CNN.com/sport for more news and features

This time, though, he plans to keep his torso under wraps.

"I don't know if it's possible to beat that event, it was a Summer Games," he laughs. "It's going to be minus 18 to minus 20, wind chill minus 25.

"I want to make sure that I can at least make it to my race and that I'm not frozen to death, so I have to stay warm at the opening ceremony."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 51612

Reported Deaths: 2760
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion12074693
Lake5650249
Elkhart361860
Allen2952134
St. Joseph214869
Hamilton1708101
Cass16459
Hendricks1466100
Johnson1345118
Porter84038
Tippecanoe7799
Vanderburgh7686
Clark71144
Madison67864
LaPorte62328
Howard60758
Bartholomew60145
Kosciusko5824
Marshall5579
Noble52028
Boone49144
LaGrange48610
Jackson4783
Delaware47552
Hancock46836
Shelby45925
Floyd41444
Monroe34828
Morgan34531
Grant32226
Dubois3096
Montgomery29820
Henry29618
Clinton2903
White27610
Dearborn26523
Warrick26129
Vigo2588
Decatur25632
Lawrence25225
Harrison21822
Greene19632
Miami1942
Jennings17912
Putnam1738
DeKalb1694
Scott1659
Wayne1586
Daviess15117
Perry14910
Steuben1382
Orange13723
Jasper1362
Ripley1347
Franklin1288
Gibson1242
Wabash1163
Carroll1142
Starke1083
Whitley1076
Fayette1067
Newton10110
Huntington942
Jefferson872
Wells821
Randolph804
Fulton731
Jay720
Knox710
Washington681
Pulaski661
Clay645
Rush623
Posey610
Spencer571
Owen521
Benton510
Sullivan501
Adams491
Brown431
Blackford402
Fountain362
Crawford330
Switzerland320
Tipton321
Parke270
Martin260
Ohio230
Vermillion200
Warren151
Union140
Pike120
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 65592

Reported Deaths: 3058
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin12035447
Cuyahoga9208399
Hamilton6950208
Lucas3007306
Marion274839
Montgomery251336
Summit2351209
Pickaway222741
Mahoning1948239
Butler186347
Columbiana138560
Stark1225116
Lorain115269
Trumbull105378
Warren100926
Clark81610
Delaware72415
Fairfield69217
Lake60923
Tuscarawas60910
Medina58932
Licking58312
Belmont57024
Miami51031
Portage50260
Clermont4977
Wood49451
Ashtabula44844
Geauga42843
Richland3786
Wayne37355
Allen36641
Greene3469
Mercer30210
Erie28622
Holmes2615
Darke25926
Huron2472
Madison2229
Ottawa19324
Sandusky16915
Athens1671
Ross1483
Washington14620
Coshocton1424
Putnam14215
Crawford1415
Hardin12312
Morrow1211
Jefferson1152
Auglaize1114
Muskingum1041
Union1021
Preble911
Clinton892
Monroe8917
Hancock861
Lawrence860
Guernsey813
Hocking819
Williams762
Shelby754
Logan711
Scioto710
Carroll703
Ashland682
Fulton670
Brown631
Wyandot635
Champaign551
Fayette550
Knox551
Defiance543
Highland531
Van Wert491
Perry461
Seneca412
Henry350
Paulding320
Jackson300
Pike290
Adams261
Vinton232
Gallia211
Harrison141
Noble140
Meigs130
Morgan110
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 68°
Angola
Clear
63° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 63°
Huntington
Clear
69° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 69°
Decatur
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 64°
Van Wert
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 64°
Warmer Tuesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events