Famous on social media for being the ‘shirtless’ Tonga flag bearer at the Rio Olympics, the story behind Pita Taufatofua is a lot more inspiring and historic than just his appearance at the opening ceremony.

The 36-year-old has represented Tonga at both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games in a span of a couple of years, which is a rare feat in itself. He competed in taekwondo at the 2016 Rio Games, where he first hit headlines for his appearance – oiled torso with the taʻovala, the traditional Tongan mat, wrapped around the waist. At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, he was the flagbearer of Tonga again, with a similar attire in much colder weather, qualifying for his second Olympics in cross-country skiing after an arduous journey.

But if his standout appearance at the Olympic ceremonies is what made him a social media sensation, it is Taufatofua’s incredible resolve and enterprise that makes his story incredible for sports lovers.

He became the first player from Tonga to qualify for the Olympics in taekwondo. It then took incredible effort to qualify in cross-country skiing despite coming from a Polynesian island country and barely seeing snow in his life. He is now trying qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in a third sport, canoeing.

Despite not having a medal in either of his sports, his is a motivational story for all sports fans and another reminder of what the Olympic spirit means to athletes.

Reaching Rio

Taufatofua wanted to be an Olympian when he saw fellow Tongan Paea Wolfgramm win a medal in boxing at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

But for him, just reaching his first Olympics was about 15 years of hard work and pain – including two excruciating injuries while trying to qualifying for the 2008 and 2012 Games.

“From memory, six broken bones, three torn ligaments, one-and-a-half years on crutches, three months in a wheelchair and just hundreds and hundreds of hours of physiotherapy,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with The Guardian.

He detailed how he fractured his foot and was unable to walk for six months after the 2008 qualifier, slept under a desk in a preschool in Korea for six months while training in 2011, reached the final of the next qualifier on just one leg, but still fell short. To go to the 2016 qualifiers, he needed to bank on others for money to buy his tickets and then fundraisers to train.

But the drive to be an Olympian pushed him and he finally made it to Rio. Taufatofua was eliminated in first round, but made a lasting impression.

A colder challenge

However, as difficult as it was to qualify for his first Olympics, his second came only a year later in even more unexpected circulates – in a winter sport. At the end of 2016, he announced that he has taken up cross-country skiing and will look to qualify for the 2018 Winter Games in Korea. Tonga made its winter Olympics debut at the last edition in Sochi, Russia, where the team consisted of one athlete and two officials.

With no snow in his country or training, he first banked on Youtube videos and then rented skis.

“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,” he was quoted as saying by CNN.

“...I had one year to qualify. We had to get to all these countries to try and get the races. I think it was 15 countries in eight weeks. The problem was we had to go to races which were not the hardest races where the world cup winners would be, it would be too hard. At this stage, every single athlete from every country was getting ready for the Olympics. I came last in four out of nine races,” he told The Guardian.

Taufatofua joined forces with skiers Mexico’s German Madrazo and Chile’s Yonathan Fernandez to form an independent training group that rented a cabin in Austria to train on snow and plan races. But deep in debt and running out of races to qualify, the Tongan was in the familiar place of losing his chance again.

Taking his brother’s air miles, he went for his final shot – a race in Iceland on a fjord in the Arctic Circle. But a snowstorm, road closures and an avalanche meant that a 10-hour drive took three days.

As fate would have it, he did qualify for his second Olympics on the last possible day, even with almost no resources. At Pyeongchang, he didn’t come last as he expected but was 114 out of 119 skiers. But just by finishing the race, he showed the indomitable sporting spirit of athletes yet again.

Now, with a lot more experience, he hopes to qualify for his third Olympics in a third sport, with another traditional Tongan touch. It should be noted, he has already qualified for Tokyo in taekwondo.

“I chose kayak because it’s something close to my heart. It’s something that Polynesians have done for a thousand years, travelling from island to island,” he told the Olympic Channel Podcast.

Given his incredible record against the odds so far, no one can doubt Taufatofua’s ability to do it.