World-famous Tongan flag bearer to join exclusive club at PyeongChang 2018

For 32 years, Pita Taufatofua had the luxury of avoiding snow.

There wasn't a trace of the white stuff during Taufatofua's journey to fame - before his distinction as Tonga's first athlete to compete in the Olympics in taekwondo was overshadowed by his memorable entrance at the Rio 2016 opening ceremony.

It was the type of outfit that screamed, "I've never had to shovel in my life!" or even deal with delays because of severe winter weather. But it wasn't long after his brief stint in Brazil that the latter became a reality during Taufatofua's unlikely path to PyeongChang 2018.

The dream of competing on his sport's biggest stage was quickly followed by bitter disappointment after a first-round loss ended his Olympic dream for at least another four years. But Taufatofua had other plans.

Although his shirtless appearance and subsequent rise to fame after the opening ceremony will outlast the memory of his losing result in Rio, the 34-year-old has since set himself up to re-invent his image when he takes part in the men's cross-country skiing competition and joins an exclusive group of 136 athletes who have competed in both the summer and winter Olympics - of those to take part in both events, only five have won medals.

It was a risky challenge, as his choice of sport is arguably one of the most challenging at the winter games.

“To me it is not crazy at all, it seems really normal to me (switching sports),” he said in an interview with Eleanor Ainge of the Guardian.

“No one is in the same job a few years later, very few people are in the same house a few years later. Life is changing and evolving, it is not stagnant. And sport is the same.”

A trip to South Korea seemed farfetched when, in December 2016, he announced his intention to become Tonga's second athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics by venturing into the world of competitive cross-country skiing.

The daunting task was still in doubt in the weeks leading up to the final qualifying race, with a ticket to PyeongChang at the finish line. It was going to take a miracle for a guy who finished 153rd out of 156 cross-country skiers in his first race.

Taufatofua, who had to lose over 30 lbs to give himself a better chance to compete against his slender adversaries, was faced with multiple obstacles, which included plane delays, travel in snowy conditions, and financial restrictions that almost derailed his goal of reaching PyeongChang.

On the heels of last-place finishes in each of the six races leading up to judgment day in January, Taufatofua, whose journey took him from places such as Colombia and Turkey, finally realized his dream of returning to the Olympics.

By narrowly securing his ticket to South Korea during the final qualifying race, he ensured that Tonga will have a presence at the Winter Olympics.

"I thought there's one race left, it's the end of the world, in the arctic circle," he said. "I thought, 'I have to give it my all - it's grave or glory' and I gave it absolutely everything.

"We sacrificed everything to be here - financially, I am in the worst position ever but I am the happiest ever."

Taufatofua, Tonga's lone Olympian at PyeongChang 2018, didn't disappoint Friday as he braved the frigid weather without shoes, a jacket, or a shirt. Just grease ... lots and lots of grease.

Let's hope he had some winter gear waiting for him at his seat, as temperatures are hovering around 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

World-famous Tongan flag bearer to join exclusive club at PyeongChang 2018
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