PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The “shirtless” Tongan, all covered up to keep warm this time, had only one thought as he maneuvered around the final downhill turn and headed toward the finish line.
“Please God,” the Olympic cross-country skier said to himself, “not in front of everyone. Don’t give me my first fall.”
Pita Taufatofua made it to the finish line, all right, and he did it before they closed the course for the night – the other of his two fears heading into the event.
The man who has marched shirtless and oiled up in the last two Olympics – summer and winter – wasn’t even last in Friday’s race. Taufatofua was, however, near the back in 114th place out of 116 finishers, about 33 minutes behind gold medalist Dario Cologna.
And that was just fine by him.
“I would rather finish toward the end of the pack with all of my friends than somewhere in the middle by myself,” said Taufatofua, who took up the sport last year after competing in taekwondo at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. “We fought together, we finish together.”
Taufatofua and several others, like 43-year-old German Madrazo of Mexico, literally went around the world to qualify for the Winter Games, forging tight friendships along the way in pursuit of a common goal.
They tried cross-country qualifying races in Armenia, Poland, Turkey and Austria. And failed.
Finally, they traveled to Iceland and made it in the last qualifying race before the Pyeongchang Games, spending nearly every last penny they had to reach their Olympic dream.
“Pita and I spent two months, fighting and fighting every day,” Madrazo said. “One day we were completely out of money and we had one last chocolate bar. There was nothing left and we split that chocolate bar and said, `Well brother, we live to fight another day.“’
Madrazo had to call home to Mexico to get a flight back from Iceland, having only bought a one-way ticket because that was all he could afford.
His story is not unique.
The 15-kilometer freestyle is the United Nations of cross-country skiing races. There was Kequyen Lam of Portugal, Sebastian Uprimny of Colombia and Klaus Jungbluth Rodriguez of Ecuador among the late finishers after most of the crowd had left. Syed Human of Pakistan and Samir Azzimani of Morocco were there, too.
None of them are elite cross-country skiers, but they were all eager to represent their country at the Pyeongchang Games.
The work those men put in to qualify for the Olympics was not lost on Cologna, a three-peat gold medalist in the event.
“I think it’s good to have many skiers from many countries here,” Cologna said. “I think we have around 60 nations. I suppose we are fighting for medals here, but it is good to feel this Olympic spirit. We have had a lot of bad news (in the world) recently, so it’s good to keep up this Olympic spirit.”
Madrazo was the last competitor to cross the finish line, proudly waving a Mexican flag he grabbed as he was heading to the homestretch.
As he crossed, Taufatofua was there to greet him with a hug.
“Today, Pita and I hugged and said again, `We live to fight another day,“’ Madrazo said. “It made me cry. It was the best feeling ever.”
The popular Taufatofua said he will be back. He plans to compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but wouldn’t say in what sport. He said it be may be in something that includes water.
“Three Olympics, three different sports,” he said. “Let’s see if it can be done.”
For now, he has another goal.
“My focus right now is to help Tonga get rebuilt,” Taufatofua said. “We got hit by a cyclone, so I want to focus on that.”
That’s another thing worth fighting for.