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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, enters Olympic qualifier with new challenge

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Pita Taufatofua‘s body made him famous at the last two Olympics. Now, it may keep him from performing at his best with an Olympic spot at stake.

Taufatofua, the Tongan flag bearer who became a sensation in Rio and PyeongChang, is entered in the Oceania Olympic kayak qualifying competition in Australia this weekend. One Olympic spot is available per event at the continental qualifier.

Taufatofua, already an underdog given he has been training in a kayak for less than a year, fractured a rib and possibly tore attaching muscle in training two weeks ago. Taufatofua said on Tuesday that he could not walk straight without pain and that he had not paddled since the injury.

“Other than that, everything else was going really well,” he said. “[I was in] the best condition of my life.”

Taufatofua, who announced in April that he wanted to qualify for the Tokyo Games in kayak and his 2016 Olympic sport of taekwondo, said the rib fracture is an eight-to-12-week injury. Oceania’s Olympic taekwondo qualifier is in two weeks.

“Obviously the rib injury affects taekwondo just as much as kayaking,” said Taufatofua, adding that his training in recent months was 80 percent kayak and 20 percent taekwondo. “I’m not going to pull out of anything just because the pain.”

If Taufatofua does not win either Olympic qualifier, he can still get to the Tokyo Games. Tonga’s Olympic Committee confirmed that it applied for a tripartite invitational spot in kayak (and weightlifting).

The International Olympic Committee has tripartite spots (104 total across 16 individual sports) in part to ensure universal representation at the Games. Nations that averaged eight or fewer total athletes between the last two Summer Games are eligible. Tonga averaged five athletes between London and Rio.

In canoe/kayak, two total tripartite spots will be awarded between the men’s and women’s sprint and slalom events. A final decision will be made around April, according to the International Canoe Federation.

While Taufatofua would be thankful if offered a tripartite spot, he would rather qualify outright for a third straight Olympics. He hopes his body will be ready.

“We’re just praying for a miracle, that I wake up and everything feels good,” he said.

He could be the first athlete to compete in a different sport in three straight Olympics (Summer and Winter) since the Winter Games began in 1924, according to the OlyMADMen. In PyeongChang, Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

Back in August, Taufatofua raced at the world championships in Hungary. He struggled to get his kayak into position and was left at the start as six other kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total first-round heats.

He has since been training in Brisbane, Australia. Taufatofua estimated he fell out of his kayak nearly 1,000 times into a river where he has seen bull sharks. But he has seen improvement, more than doubling his average speed to near his goal to be competitive.

“It was our only option in terms of body of water we could use,” he said. “I’m optimistic in the worst of times. I’ve put in all the work.”

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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Boston Marathon canceled for first time after 123 years; virtual event planned

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The Boston Marathon, held every year since 1897, has been canceled as an in-person event for the first time. It will be held as a virtual race instead due to the coronavirus.

“While we cannot bring the world to Boston in September, we plan to bring Boston to the world for an historic 124th Boston Marathon,” Boston Athletic Association (BAA) CEO Tom Grilk said in a press release.

The world’s oldest annual marathon had been postponed from April 20 to Sept. 14, it was announced March 13.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said he first considered canceling the postponed marathon during a coronavirus surge in April.

“We were maxed out in our hospital emergency rooms,” Walsh said Thursday. “I realized that the downside of the curve, which we were on, the backside of the curve, is going to be going for some time. The concern of a second surge made me have some real reservations about can we have the marathon or not.”

Walsh said experts said a potential second surge would be between August and October. He held out hope to hold the race until talking with the BAA last week.

All participants originally registered for Boston will be offered a full refund of their entry fee and have the opportunity to participate in the virtual alternative, which can be run between Sept. 7-14.

More details, including entry information, will be announced in the coming weeks.

It’s the biggest alteration to the Boston Marathon, which was inspired by the marathon’s debut at the first modern Olympics in 1896. Previously, the biggest change came in 1918, the last year of World War I. The marathon was still held on Patriots’ Day in April but as a 10-man military relay race.

The original 2020 Boston elite fields included two-time U.S. Olympian Des Linden, the 2018 Boston winner who was fourth at the Feb. 29 Olympic Trials, where the top three earned Olympic spots.

London is the world’s other major spring marathon. It was rescheduled from April 27 to Oct. 4. Its original fields for April were headlined by the two fastest men in history — Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge and Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele. It’s unknown if they will remain in the field, should London happen.

The fall major marathon schedule

Boston — Sept. 7-14 (virtual event)
Berlin — TBD (will not be held as planned on Sept. 27)
London — Oct. 4
Chicago — Oct. 11
New York City — Nov. 1

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