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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