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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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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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Tonga flag bearer eyes history with two sports at Tokyo Olympics

Tonga flag bearer Pita Taufatofua
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Pita Taufatofua, the viral Tongan flag bearer from the last two Olympics, wants to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Games in two sports — his trademark taekwondo and an individual sprint kayak event.

Two problems: He hasn’t competed in taekwondo in two and a half years. He just started training in a kayak last month and keeps capsizing.

Qualifying to return to the Olympics looks unlikely.

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

Taufatofua, 35, 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.

He soon announced a 2020 Olympic bid in a new sport that involved water but did not disclose his choice until Monday.

“It’s something that’s much more aligned with my heritage,” said Taufatofua, who is also releasing his book, “The Motivation Station,” a life story with lessons, this week. “As a Polynesian, we traveled across the seas for a thousand years. The only way we knew how to get there was canoes, kayaks, outrigger canoes at the time. I wanted to do a sport that paid homage to my heritage and to my ancestors. But I also wanted to bring awareness to some of the problems that the world is facing. Climate change, pollution in the ocean.”

Taufatofua might have better luck reaching Tokyo in taekwondo, though he said he hasn’t competed in that sport since Rio.

The initial focus is on kayak’s two-pronged qualifying, beginning with the world championships in Hungary in August. Tonga must have an entrant at worlds to be eligible for the Olympics, an International Canoe Federation official said.

First, Taufatofua must learn to stay afloat for a 200m race that takes the world’s best 36 seconds to complete.

“At the moment the thing keeps tipping over,” he said. “I’ve got all the strength and conditioning training ready to propel me forward, but I can’t manage to stay on at the moment.”

He has time. Taufatofua’s result would only matter at an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayaker from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships. Bird did not respond to a message seeking comment on his new competition.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga. But he is, for the moment, adamant on qualifying outright.

“Learning the techniques of the sport is going to take some time and hard work,” said NBC Olympic analyst Eric Giddens, a 1996 Olympian in kayak’s slalom event. “That’s not to say he can’t do it. The system in place, there’s a path. It’s not impossible.”

Taufatofua said he grew up fishing on a recreational kayak. He began kayak training in March, splitting his time between Tonga and Australia. His coach is his taekwondo coach, though he said the retired three-time Olympic medalist Katrin Borchert has helped with technical advice.

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.

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.

Taufatofua would also be the first athlete in multiple sports at one Summer Games since 1992, when a pair competed in modern pentathlon and fencing (though fencing is also one of the five disciplines in modern pentathlon).

Furthermore, he would be the first to compete in two distinctly different sports at one Summer Games since Aristidis Roubanis threw the javelin and played for the Greek basketball team in Helsinki in 1952.

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