The shirtless Tongan flag-bearer who became a sensation at the Rio Olympics nearly completed an incredible transition to cross-country skiing and the Winter Olympics

pita taufatofuaMatthias Schrader/APMatthias Schrader/AP

  • Pita Taufatofua became a sensation at the Rio Olympics when he showed up shirtless and slathered in oil, carrying the Tonga flag at the opening ceremony.
  • After Rio, Taufatofua transitioned to cross-country skiing to give himself a new challenge.
  • After doing well in roller-skiing, Taufatofua moved to Austria to train and was one cross-country skiing race away from qualifying for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
  • Taufatofua did not do well in a recent race, casting doubt on whether he can still qualify for Pyeongchang.

One of the more memorable figures of the 2016 Rio Olympics resurfaced in time for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in an attempt to compete on the world's biggest stage again.

Pita Taufatofua became a sensation at the Rio Olympics when he showed up at the opening ceremonies shirtless and slathered in oil, carrying Tonga's flag.

Taufatofua competed in taekwondo unremarkably, losing his only match in six minutes. Nonetheless, his smile and appearance made him a fun staple of the games.

However, as documented by The Wall Street Journal's Ben Cohen and Joshua Robinson, Taufatofua was not long for taekwondo. Instead, he transitioned to cross-country skiing and tried to make the Pyeongchang Olympics in one of the most unlikely - and fairly successful - sports conversions in Olympic history.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Taufatofua's motivation for switching sports and games was simple - a new challenge. He told Robinson and Cohen that he often makes impulsive decisions.

At the time of the writing of the Wall Street Journal article, Taufatofua was one race away from qualifying for the Olympics. According to the Journal, in an effort to expand the field of the sport and allow more races from warm-weather countries, the International Ski Federation began accepting points accrued in roller-skiing events (like cross-country skiing but on wheels). Racers would have to have five finishes that satisfied a points system and Taufatofua had four such finishes on roller skis before moving to cross-country skiing.

The only problem for Taufatofua was that he had never been on skis or been in the snow and he had little money. Instead of driving 30 hours to the nearest mountain range (Taufatofua lives in Australia), he trained on the beach on the roller skis, saying he wrecked his body trying to get a handle on it.

After qualifying in four roller events, there were none left, so he had to go compete in snow. He found a trainer and started a GoFundMe page to go train in Austria, learning everything from technique, to the rules of cross-country skiing, to how to wax his skis. They trained in the morning and the dark, using their iPhone flashlights to see at night.

pita taufatofua 2Clive Brunskill/GettyPita Taufatofua became a sensation at the Rio Olympics.Clive Brunskill/Getty

According to the Journal, there have been summer Olympians who have turned to cross-country skiing, but Taufatofua would be the first to transition from taekwondo. Among his challenges was dropping weight, which is partially why there haven't been any other converts from taekwondo to cross-country skiing - the body types are too different.Taufatofua reportedly only has until January 21 to qualify for Pyeongchang. He most recently posted on his Instagram that a key race in Poland did not go well, casting doubt on whether he will be able to make the games.

Nonetheless, the accomplishment is considerable.

"This is a crazy story even for me," he told The Journal. "''m, like, what the hell am I doing here? I'm freezing my ass off."

He added: "I don't fear failure. I fear not trying."

Read the entire story here > 

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