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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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Alina Zagitova wins Rostelecom Cup; Gracie Gold withdraws

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova dominated the Rostelecom Cup, while Gracie Gold withdrew before Saturday’s free skate at her first competition in 22 months, citing emotional stress.

Zagitova skated a flawed free, but still totaled 222.95 points and prevailed by 24.94 over countrywoman Sofia Samodurova. Zagitova qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international competition, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Gold, coming back from treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, was in last place of 10 skaters after struggling with jumps in Friday’s short program.

Gold, a Sochi Olympian and two-time U.S. champion, later tweeted that she withdrew because competing in the free skate would be damaging to her mental health and confidence.

“It was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately I need to put my mental health first and focus on the big picture,” was tweeted from Gold’s account. “Looking forward, I need to keep improving both my physical and mental condition. I thought checking into treatment last fall was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but skating my short program last night might have topped it. I do not want to undo the tremendous progress I’ve made in these last few months.”

The Grand Prix season continues next week with Nathan Chen headlining Internationaux de France, the last event before the Grand Prix Final.

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Zagitova, 16, is undefeated in three events this season and owns the world’s top overall score (238.43) by a whopping 14.12 points. However, Japanese 16-year-old Rika Kihira has the highest total on the Grand Prix of 224.31.

Zagitova struggled Saturday with the difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination and doubled a flip at the end of her free skate.

Her primary rival last season, countrywoman Yevgenia Medvedeva, has finished second or third in her four competitions in the last year and likely must reach the podium next week in France for a chance at the Grand Prix Final and her first matchup with Zagitova since PyeongChang.

It’s likely that no U.S. woman makes the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year, after never previously going back-to-back years without a qualifier. U.S. champion Bradie Tennell likely must win in France to reach the Final.

Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu won the men’s event, hours after twisting his right ankle in a hard practice fall. Hanyu hopped on a crutch backstage and said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final and Japanese Nationals later in December. More here on Hanyu’s day.

Russian favorites Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin won the pairs’ and ice dance titles, respectively, qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

Tarasova and Morozov, two-time world medalists, posted 220.25 points, moving up to No. 2 in the world behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the Rostelecom field. None of the Olympic pairs’ medalists are competing this fall. Earlier Saturday, Tarasova received five stitches after cutting her chin in a practice crash into the boards.

In dance, Stepanova and Bukin tallied 199.43, keeping them close to U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue in the world rankings. Those two couples face off for the first time this season at the Grand Prix Final.

The top returning couple this season, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, competes next week at the top international level for the first time since winning a third world title in March. They are not eligible for the Grand Prix Final after withdrawing from last week’s NHK Trophy due to Cizeron’s back injury.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Ashley Wagner on her competitive future, coaching

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Rostelecom Cup, hops on crutch to press conference

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Yuzuru Hanyu won Rostelecom Cup by nearly 30 points, then hopped on a crutch backstage.

The double Olympic champion twisted his right ankle in a hard practice fall Saturday morning, then several hours later had the highest-scoring free skate with three quadruple jumps.

Hanyu said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final in three weeks — and a showdown with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and, likely, world champion Nathan Chen according to The Associated Press.

“It really hurts,” Hanyu said, according to Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “This injury made me change my program, and sadly I couldn’t perform the way I wanted. I could have done better.”

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Hanyu apologized to a TV camera following his free skate, after falling and popping an Axel on his last two jumps.

Last November, Hanyu damaged right ankle ligaments in a practice fall, forcing him off the ice for more than a month. He said this injury is not as bad. Still, coach Brian Orser said “it was a big question” whether Hanyu would withdraw before the free skate, according to Olympic Channel.

Hanyu endured, taking out the quadruple loop that he fell on in practice but still adding 10 points to his lead from Friday’s short program. For the first time in nine seasons, Hanyu won his two Grand Prix Series qualifying events, cruising into December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

Georgian Morisi Kvitelashvili took second, followed by Japanese Kazuki Tomono.

Two other men who came to Moscow with Grand Prix Final hopes — Russian Mikhail Kolyada and Canadian Keegan Messing — struggled in Friday’s short program and could not get onto the podium, placing fourth and fifth. They won’t be at the Final, assuming Chen finishes in the top six at next week’s event in France.

Rostelecom Cup continues later Saturday with the free programs for ice dance, pairs and women, streaming live on NBC Sports Gold.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Ashley Wagner on her future, role as coach