Since hitting the required standard in his last possible cross-country ski race before the deadline for qualification closed, Tongan Winter Olympian Pita Taufatofua says he has been fielding up to 70 media requests a day from all around the world.
And speaking to Pacific Beat from his training camp in Austria, Taufatofua says he is keen to let people who are curious about him know that he is no novelty act.
“I put myself through a lot of challenge just to be here, so I can guarantee you it wasn’t fun, but I’m an athlete and as an athlete you always give your absolute best at a competition,” he said.
But Mr Taufatofua’s approach to the performing in front of the world in this month’s upcoming games is surprisingly relaxed.
“The goal was to qualify in a year and I feel I don’t have as much pressure as other people now, because I achieved what I set out to achieve and all I have left to do is give the best version of me in the race,” he said.
Not only is there no snow in the Pacific Island country of Tonga, but Taufatofua only saw snow for the first time in his life two years ago.
Making the feat even more remarkable, Taufatofua was already a summer Olympian, having competed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games in taekwondo.
“I’m always trying to raise the bar, so who knows, maybe I’ll go for three Olympic sports, I don’t think that’s been done before, three completely different sports,” he said.
“I’m not restricted to the rules that other people follow, that you can only do one thing at a time, I follow my own tune.”
There are ‘worse things’ than being last
Ahead of making the trip to Pyeongchang for the opening ceremony on February 9, Taufatofua is training in the Alpine town of Seefeld in Austria, which is well known as a cross-country skiing centre.
“I’ve qualified last in the standings I think, so the expectation isn’t so high, and that’s good because it removes a lot of the pressure.”
His focus is on learning to pace his races better, and he wants to get better at maintaining his energy levels throughout a race, rather than pushing so hard at the beginning and then, as he puts it, “hitting a wall.”
The Tongan has no specific target in mind when he gets to South Korea.
“No-one wants to be last at the Olympics, but there are worse things,” he said.
“I’d love to be first but I’ll be happy with whatever my best performance is on the day. I went to Rio to try and win in taekwondo, but the way I see this is my goal is to be myself.”
“I’ve made a second Olympics in a new sport within a year, and I feel that’s a pretty cool thing to have.”
The Olympian said he had originally planned to move to sprint events but then moved into distance events instead, but the move has taken a physical toll.
“I’ve lost probably 15 kilograms of muscle, so my goal after this is to focus on the shorter cross-country distances,” he said.
Getting to the Olympics does not come cheap, and Taufatofua has had to work hard to get the necessary finance together, with the assistance of crowdfunding and sponsorship, but still he is out of pocket.
How Pita ‘managed to survive’ the challenges
“I’m in the worst financial position of my life, but I’m also in the best mental space ever; I feel happy,” he said.
Taufatofua said he expected challenges, both physical and financial, but that he “managed to survive”.
“A lot of people have seen my story and the challenges, because I made it really public this time,” he said.
“My taekwondo career, I didn’t make very public, all the challenges I went through, but this time I made it public; I wanted to show people just what they can achieve.”
Taufatofua believes telling his story, warts and all, is what has inspired so many to donate.
“People feel connected to that story because they can associate it with something in their life,” he said.
And more immediately, what about the opening ceremony? Does the man who brought the house down at the Summer Games in Rio, have anything special in mind for his big Winter Games entrance?
Pita to ‘keep his clothes on this time’
“I’m very excited. I’m just looking forward to enjoying it as well this time,” he said.
“As for the opening ceremony, what I do know is that Korea is very cold, so it would be a very smart idea to keep all my clothes on this time.”
At the Rio Olympics, Taufatofua went on to lose his opening round taekwondo bout at the Games to Iranian Sajjad Mardani 16-1.
Turning his mind to skiing, Taufatofua began by practising on roller blades before moving onto snow slopes overseas.
“I’ll race my hardest on the day, but I also want to enjoy the experience,” he said.
“The Olympic creed is about people coming together, countries coming together and that’s what it is for me.”