Social media lit up in 2016 when Pita Taufatofua stepped out in parade of nations at the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics wearing just a grass skirt from his country, Tonga, and a glistening layer of oil on his shirtless upper body.
Now the taekwondo specialist is trying to mount an improbable Olympic comeback — not for the next Summer Games, but next month at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, despite representing a tiny tropical island nation in the South Pacific.
Taufatofua has taken up cross-country skiing and has been racing competitively since February. He has a GoFundMe page and posts cheerily to Instagram in the snow — including one shirtless picture in the snow.
"Here was this guy who had never put skis on in his life from an island of sand and coconut trees, and then I thought, if I could do this, then anyone who's following this journey could achieve anything they wanted to achieve," Taufatofua says in a video posted to the page, which had raised about $8,500 of his $30,000 goal as of Friday morning.
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It hasn't been an easy journey. He's gone into debt while he trains in Austria and has struggled to qualify — something that's only been possible thanks to new rules that allow some roller skiing events to count, according to a new report in The Wall Street Journal. He has one last shot this weekend to qualify for the 2018 Olympics, in the snow.
"I don't fear failure," he told the Journal. "I fear not trying."
If Taufatofua makes it to Pyeongchang, he probably won't do too well — he finished in 153rd place at last year's world championships in Finland, according to the International Ski Federation. But that will be a familiar feeling for him: in Rio, he was eliminated after his only taekwondo match, a 16-1 loss.
And if he goes to the 2018 Games, Taufatofua will be the second Tongan at a Winter Olympics. Bruno Banani broke that barrier at the Sochi Games in 2014, where he finished in 33rd place in luge, though he later moved up a spot when a Russian athlete was disqualified for doping.