Pita Taufatofua

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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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McKayla Maroney, Tonga flagbearer among viral Olympic stars of 2010s decade

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NBCSports.com looks back at the 2010s this week. Here are 10 viral Olympic moments that defined the decade …

Vancouver 2010: Alexandre Bilodeau wins Canada’s first home gold, hugs brother
Canada went gold-less at both the 1976 Montreal Games and the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. A lot of thought was put into which athlete would earn its first title in Vancouver. It ended up being Bilodeau, who upset the defending champion and embraced his older brother, Frederic, who has cerebral palsy.

Vancouver 2010: Jon Montgomery’s celebratory drink after skeleton title
The Canadian came from behind to stun Latvian Martins Dukurs for gold. The scruffy car salesman/auctioneer then drank from a beer pitcher on a victory march through the Whistler ski village in one of the iconic moments of the Games.

London 2012: Queen/James Bond Opening Ceremony
Who could forget the Queen’s royal entrance into the London Olympic Stadium, “parachuting” in from above with the help of 007. Danny Boyle, the Oscar winner who directed the Opening Ceremony, originally thought an actress — perhaps Helen Mirren — would play the Queen in the skit, if approved by the royal family. “They came back and said, ‘We’re delighted for you to do it, and Her Majesty would like to be in it herself,’” Boyle said in 2013.

London 2012: McKayla Maroney not impressed
Stunned and upset that she was beaten for the Olympic vault title, Maroney became one of social media’s first major memes for her smirk on the podium. “I remember doing the face for literally two seconds,” Maroney said later. “Like, if you watch the video, it’s two seconds. And I remember thinking, did I just make a face? Because it’s natural. I do it all the time. I have pictures of me when I’m little doing it. I have it on my Mac computer when I’m like 13.”

Sochi 2014: Four-ring Opening Ceremony
By the third Olympics of the decade, everybody knew about hashtags. Among the more memorable #SochiProblems was an Opening Ceremony glitch where five snowflakes were supposed to open into five interlocking Olympic Rings. Only four did, leaving one snowflake that ended up looking like an asterisk. Organizers later made light of the mishap in the Closing Ceremony.

Sochi 2014: Johnny Quinn busts through bathroom
The U.S. bobsledder tweeted at 4:16 a.m. ET, “I was taking a shower and the door got locked/jammed…. …With no phone to call for help, I used my bobsled push training to break out. #SochiJailBreak.” And so Johnny Quinn became a social media sensation. He capitalized, training with a SWAT team (after the Games) and becoming a public speaker. Quinn, a former NFL preseason wide receiver, told his story in front of Fidelity Investments, school assemblies and LiftMaster, a suburban Chicago company whose products include garage-door accessories.

Rio 2016: Michael Phelps’ face
The swimming ready room in Rio became such a hit that a constant live stream was added to NBCOlympics.com’s wall-to-wall coverage. Phelps authored the best moment, stewing with a disgusted look as rival Chad le Clos shadow boxed in front of him. “I always know there’s two cameras in the upper right-hand corner right before I walk out, and I’m like sitting there, like spitting water,” Phelps said later. “As I’m making a face, I was like, yep, that’s on camera. … Someone will pick that one up tomorrow.”

Rio 2016: Usain Bolt’s mid-race smiles for cameras
In his last Olympics, the world’s fastest man created the most buzz while caught in still images in semifinals. Photos of Bolt — smiling while looking back at his 100m semifinal competitors mid-race — and exchanging glances with Andre De Grasse in the 200m semis — lit up social media. Tack them on to Bolt’s other viral moments, from crossing the finish line at the 2013 World Championships as lightning struck to getting run over by a Segway at the 2015 Worlds.

PyeongChang 2018: Tonga flag bearer Pita Taufatofua
Taufatofua actually debuted his shirtless, oiled-up Opening Ceremony appearance in Rio as a taekwondo athlete. But his journey to becoming a dual Summer/Winter Olympian is the stuff of legend. He traversed the globe picking up Olympic cross-country skiing qualifying points in Finland, Australia, Colombia and finally Iceland, clinching a spot thanks to the sport’s very lenient structure for athletes from nations without a Winter Olympic tradition. In PyeongChang, he braved near-freezing temperatures to again go shirtless at the Opening Ceremony. He then finished outside the top 100 in his ski race.

PyeongChang 2018: Here Comes Diggins!
The U.S.’ first Olympic cross-country skiing title changed the lives of not only Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall, but also NBC Olympics analyst Chad Salmela. The exuberant call from Salmela, who knew fellow Minnesota native Diggins since she was in high school, became the name of a new flavor at Selma’s Ice Cream Parlour in Diggins’ hometown of Afton.

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BEST OF 2010s: Summer Olympians | Winter Olympians | Teams
MOMENTS: Summer Olympics | Winter Olympics | Paralympics | Viral

Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, finishes last in kayak debut

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tonga Olympic flag bearer who went viral in Rio and PyeongChang, began his quest to make a third straight Olympics in a third different sport with a last-place finish in his opening-round heat at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary on Wednesday.

The start of the heat appeared delayed as Taufatofua struggled to get his kayak into position in the water. He was left at the start as the other six kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, a personal best and the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.

“Well that was slightly better than the first time I competed in Taekwondo or skiing,” was tweeted from Taufatofua’s account. “Would have liked to start facing the right way but that’s life.”

Taufatofua, 35, was the oldest athlete in the heat by nearly a decade. He is also entered in doubles races with Malakai Ahokava, a 36-year-old sweet potato farmer listed as the Tonga canoe federation president, with heats Thursday and Friday. Taufatofua said Ahokava sold some of his crop to pay for travel expenses.

“He’s off at the farm,” Taufatofua said, adding that the two got in a boat together for the first time last week.

Taufatofua hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo, where he competed in Rio, and in sprint kayak.

But he hasn’t competed in taekwondo in three years and just started training kayak this spring. At worlds, Taufatofua told the BBC he is still having trouble staying afloat in the water.

Taufatofua said in announcing the new sport in April that it would be “largely impossible” to qualify for Tokyo. 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.

“It’s certainly going to be the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had to embark on,” he said then.

Taufatofua’s results at worlds this week has little bearing on his Olympic qualifying prospects. Rather, he just needed to compete in Hungary to stay eligible for the Olympics.

The key will be an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayakers from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga.

Taufatofua became a social-media celebrity by marching into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony shirtless and oiled up. He then lost in the first round via mercy rule in his taekwondo tournament.

He made a quixotic bid for the PyeongChang Winter Games in cross-country skiing — and accomplished the feat, barely, in a sport that has lenient qualifying requirements for nations with a lack of Winter Games depth.

Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

If Taufatofua is able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang, he said last year.

NBC Olympic Researcher Reina Kern contributed to this report from Hungary.

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