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Tonga flag bearer from Rio qualifies for Winter Olympics

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Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up Tongan flag bearer from the Rio Games, qualified for the PyeongChang Olympics in cross-country skiing on Saturday.

“This was my last race possible, and we did it,” Taufatofua said in an interview with Olympic Channel, which also reported that he qualified. “This is a miracle.”

Taufatofua qualified at the final weekend of the Olympic qualifying period in Iceland, which is more than 9,000 miles from his home archipelago.

The last two events before qualification ends were Saturday’s freestyle race and a classic race scheduled for Sunday.

Taufatofua completed a journey this season that included races in Colombia, Turkey, Poland and Armenia.

Taufatofua said he had seven chances to qualify for PyeongChang before Saturday and failed in all of them, finishing last each time (The official results show Taufatofua beating skiers from Malaysia and Mexico in some of these races.).

Taufatofua scrambled to make it to Iceland from Croatia this week. He said his group drove three days through a blizzard, an avalanche closing off the road at one point.

“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind,” he said. “They just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”

Taufatofua lost his opening Olympic taekwondo match by mercy rule in Rio, two weeks after his viral appearance in the Opening Ceremony.

He announced in December 2016 that he was switching to cross-country skiing in a bid for PyeongChang.

Cross-country, while a physically taxing pursuit, is one of the easier Winter Olympic sports to gain qualification for athletes from nations without much Winter Games history.

“I decided to find the hardest sport possible because I needed a new challenge,” Taufatofua said. “The goal was to do it one year, and we did it.”

Taufatofua debuted at the 2017 World Championships and was 153rd of 156 finishers in the 1.6km sprint freestyle.

It took Taufatofua 5 minutes, 44.72 seconds to complete the course in Lahti, Finland, which was about 10,000 miles from Tonga. The top qualifier clocked 3:11.72.

How will he dress at the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony, where outdoor temperatures are likely to be below freezing?

“One step at a time,” Taufatofua said. “Right now, I just want to go and party. I destroyed myself just to get here.”

In 2014, Bruno Banani became the first Tongan to compete at a Winter Olympics, placing 32nd in men’s luge. He was later the subject of a documentary.

Banani gained fame starting in early 2012, when the story of his name was widely publicized. Banani’s real name is Fuahea Semi, but he changed it to the name of his German clothing sponsor as a marketing ploy.

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics

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I raced through 5 countries in the last 24hrs to try and get to my race in Croatia. I sat in a taxi for 6 hrs driving through Armenia into Georgia in the middle of the night. I sat on the front seat of the @turkishairlines plane, sprinted through the airport and snuck through the business class fast transit lane and somehow managed to arrive at the gate 15 min before departure for my flight to Croatia. Once there I found that @turkishairlines had shut the gate early even after their delayed initial flight from Georgia, leaving me stranded. After remembering a scene from a James Bond movie, I pressed all the buttons on the aerobridge door to see if I could somehow open it and sprint down to the connecting flight, unfortunately that didn’t work, and luckily I didn’t get arrested. So here I am sitting at Istanbul airport missing the race that could have possibly gotten me to the Olympics. It was always going to be a long shot but I had to give it a shot and I did. Soo many times in life we will get disappointed. When this happens I have two options. I can sit on that chair crying about what could have been and how unfair life is…. or I can go and find some good quality chocolate, pull out my notepad and start planning “what’s next”— I always did like chocolate…

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Eliud Kipchoge sets next marathon

Eliud Kipchoge
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Eliud Kipchoge will race the London Marathon on April 26 before he is expected to defend his Olympic title in Japan on Aug. 9, which would mark the shortest break between marathons of his career.

Kipchoge, who in his last 26.2-mile effort became the first person to break two hours at the distance, won all four of his London Marathon starts, including breaking the course record in 2016 and 2019.

His time this past April 28 — 2:02:37 — is the third-fastest time in history. Kipchoge has the world record of 2:01:39 set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. His sub-two-hour marathon in Vienna on Oct. 12 was not in a record-eligible race.

Kipchoge’s previous shortest break between marathons came in 2016, when he also ran London and the Olympics. The Olympics will be two weeks earlier in 2020 than in 2016.

Kipchoge, 35, has won 11 of 12 marathons since moving to road racing after failing to make Kenya’s 2012 Olympic track team.

He has yet to race the two most prestigious marathons in the U.S. — Boston and New York City — but has said they are on his bucket list.

MORE: Eliud Kipchoge opines on shoe technology debate

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Canadians become first female doubles luge team in World Cup

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WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Caitlin Nash and Natalie Corless made luge history Saturday, becoming the first female team to compete in a World Cup doubles race.

The 16-year-olds from Whistler combined to finish 22nd in a field of 23 sleds, though that seemed largely irrelevant. There have been four-woman teams in what is typically called four-man bobsledding, but luge has never seen a pairing like this until now.

The German sled of Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken won the race in 1 minute, 16.644 seconds. Germany’s Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt finished second and the Russian team of Vsevolod Kashkin and Konstantin Korshunov placed third for their first medal of the season.

The U.S. team of Chris Mazdzer and Jayson Terdiman placed 11th.

But the story was the Canadian teens, who qualified for the World Cup event on Thursday. They were nearly a half-second behind any other finisher and almost 2.7 seconds back of Eggert and Benecken. But they’ll forever be able to say that they were winning the race at one point — a technicality because they were the first ones down the hill at the Whistler Sliding Center, but accurate nonetheless.

The only sled they beat was the Italian team of Ivan Nagler and Fabian Malleier, who crashed in the second heat.

There are women’s singles and men’s singles races on the World Cup luge circuit, but there is no rule saying doubles teams must be composed of two men. There have been more female doubles racers at the junior level in recent years, and it was generally considered to be just a matter of time before it happened at the World Cup level.

That time became Saturday.

Canada had the chance to qualify a second sled into the doubles field because some teams typically on the circuit chose to skip this weekend’s stop, and Nash and Corless got into by successfully finishing a Nations Cup qualifying race on Thursday.

They were 11th in that race out of 11 sleds, more than a full second behind the winner and nearly a half-second behind the closest finisher. But all they had to do was cross the line without crashing to get into Saturday’s competition, and earned their spot in the luge history books as a result.

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