Pita Taufatofua nearly busted the internet the last time he showed up at the Olympics, slathered in coconut oil and carrying the Tongan flag during the opening ceremonies for the 2016 summer games in Rio.
“That was a complete surprise,” Taufatofua, who competed in taekwondo in Rio, tells PEOPLE.
“I had no idea how much attention that would get. In Tonga where you have a lot of traditional dances, the oil and the outfit I was wearing was quite normal. But in Rio it turned out to be a pretty big deal.”
Flash forward two years, and now the 34-year-old athlete is heading to his second Olympic games in a sport he knew nothing about not so long ago in Rio: cross-country skiing.
“After the summer games, I said, ‘You know what? I want a new challenge. I want to find something that’s the hardest possible sport I can think of and see if it’s possible to get Tonga qualified within a year,’ ” he says.
The Australian-born Taufatofua, whose Tongan father moved his family back to his tiny island homeland when Pita was a young boy, just barely managed to qualify for the games several weeks ago.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he admits. “I’ve been a fighter since I was five. I get in the ring and I kick people and people kick me back. But this is a distance sport where you have to hold this certain level of pain for up to an hour, then cross the finish line and you just die.”
His approach to training, he admits, was brutally simple: Learn how to actually cross-country ski and try to survive.
“Most of my training was on roller skis (short skis on wheels), which don’t have brakes,” he says. “There were so many wipeouts – cuts, scrapes and bruises. Probably every week I’d lose half an elbow or graze my knee or land on my face.”
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The reaction back in Tonga to his qualifying for the Winter Olympics, he says, has been overwhelming, and he will be carrying his country’s flag once again at the upcoming opening ceremony.
“They’re so happy,” he adds. “I’m only the second Tongan in history to attend the Winter Olympics. That means a lot to me — because it’s not about me, it’s about the whole country.”
So how Taufatofua think he’ll fare in PyeongChang? “I just scraped by to qualify,” he laughs. “So I’m not sure if I’ll be fighting to come in last or second to last or third to last, but I’ll be fighting — until the end.
“If somebody had told me I’d be doing this two years ago I would have said they were crazy,” he says. “But most of my life has been about challenges, so maybe crazy is a good thing.”