Tonga's shirtless flagbearer learned to cross-country ski in 12 months with the help of a venture capitalist who had failed to do the same 4 years ago

Matthias Hangst/Getty

  • Pita Taufatofua made the remarkable transition from taekwondo to cross-country skiing in 12 months to make the Winter Olympics.
  • He was aided by Paul Bragiel, a venture capitalist, who once tried to make the Olympics in cross-country skiing.
  • Bragiel grew close to the Tongan Olympic team at the Rio Olympics.
  • Bragiel gave Taufatofua tips along the way and also helped two other cross-country skiers from Colombia and Mexico get to the games.

After the men’s 15km cross-country skiing race at the Winter Olympics, the three last-place finishers, from Mexico, Colombia, and Tonga, went out to celebrate.

They got dinner with their teams and enjoyed a night filled with somaek, a Korean alcoholic drink, before partying at various Olympic houses, returning home at 5:00 in the morning.

For these Olympians, it was a night of celebration – they were the last three finishers of the race, but making the Olympics was their ultimate goal, and they had reached the pinnacle after years of work. All of which makes Pita Taufatofua, the cross-country skier from Tonga, all the more unique.

“This motherf—-r picked up a brand new sport in 12 months!” said Paul Bragiel, one of the men joining the festivities. “And it wasn’t like he was an endurance runner like a marathoner – he was doing taekwondo!”

Taufatofua’s story is well-known by now. He became a sensation at the Rio Olympics for going shirtless during the opening and closing ceremonies. Afterward, he decided to try for the Pyeongchang Olympics, becoming a cross-country skier in one year and remarkably qualifying for the games. But he couldn’t have done it without the help of Bragiel.

Tonga asked for help, and Bragiel obliged

Bragiel’s connection with Taufatofua and Tonga in general is incredibly unique. In 2013, Bragiel, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, tried making the 2014 Sochi Olympics as a cross-country skier, but came just short.

In 2015, Leafa Mataele Wawryk, the secretary general of the Tongan Winter Olympics team, asked Bragiel to meet to discuss the nation’s fledgling team, so he agreed. Months later, he was invited to Tonga for the coronation of their king, and was surprised, but obliged, enjoying a week of festivities in the beautiful South Pacific island. When the Tongan team asked him for help raising money to get their athletes to Rio, he was also happy to help, using his connections to get them athletic wear and flights.

Two weeks later, they surprised Bragiel by asking him to be part of their staff. Already in Rio for the games, he was thrilled to join the team.

That was where he met the shirtless flagbearer, marching behind him at the opening ceremonies. When Taufatofua became a star in Rio, Bragiel helped manage the media requests and told him how to handle his newfound stardom.

Pita rio olympicsPaul Gilham/GettyPita Taufatofua led the Tongan delegation, which included Paul Bragiel (beard, back right) at the Rio Olympics.

After the Rio Olympics were over, the Tongan team tried testing a few of their athletes in winter sports, but none of them did particularly well. They turned to Taufatofua, who told the Wall Street Journal he was ready for a new challenge.

By the time Taufatofua began training for Pyeongchang, beginning on roller-skis, Bragiel had retired from cross-country skiing. While Taufatofua trained, both in Australia on roller-skis and then in Austria on snow skis, he was in constant communication with Bragiel, messaging him on Facebook for tips and pointers.

“You’re talking about an amazing athlete.”

Taufatofua dropped over 20 pounds to make the transition from taekwondo to cross-country skiing – the first such transition in Olympic history, according to The Wall Street Journal. Taufatofua worked more on his lower-body, letting some of the upper-body strength he accrued in martial arts dissipate. According to Bragiel, Taufatofua is strict with his diet and he doesn’t drink – dropping the weight came easily.

And though Taufatofua barely had any exposure to snow before the Olympic games, Bragiel thought he saw Taufatofua making progress over the previous eight weeks, beginning to make strides in a sport he hadn’t truly competed in until a few months ago.

Bragiel thinks people don’t recognise the athletic challenge of Taufatofua’s achievement.

“I don’t think people talk about that at all,” he said. “They’re like,”Ah yeah, great, we got this shirtless wonder.’ It’s like, dude, you’re talking about an amazing athlete here.’ In two different sports.”

He added: “I tried to do it in nine months; I came semi-close. He did it in 12 months and he pulled it off! It’s like, goddamn, it just shows how amazing he is.”

“Team Exotic” celebrates

The men’s 15km cross-country race had one of the great moments of these games. Taufatofua, next to Colombia’s Sebastian Uprimny (Bragiel is actually a part of Team Colombia, from his own Olympic pursuit in 2013) and several others waited for Mexico’s German Madrazo (who Bragiel also helped get to Pyeongchang) at the finish line. Taufatofua finished third-to-last, Uprimny finished second-to-last, and Madrazo came in 26 minutes behind the first-place finisher.

“Team Exotic” as Bragiel said they nicknamed themselves, all finished together, celebrating their achievement.

German MadrozaMatthias Hangst/Getty Images,Several cross-country skiers waited for Mexico’s German Madrazo to finish the race.

“A lot of these guys – they didn’t know each other at all – but they all met each other at a race that they did in Colombia, actually,” Bragiel said. “And they kinda all came together and became super close friends.

“So yeah, after they all finished a race, that is their gold medal. They weren’t going for the gold. The fact that they made the Olympics was their gold. So after that it was a huge party and people were super pumped, and years of work for some of these guys came to a conclusion of sorts.”

After dinner, the group went to the Austrian and Swiss ski houses, according to Bragiel. While some of the top countries haven’t paid much attention to them, Bragiel said other nations have been enthralled with their unusual group.

“The coolest countries especially have been Finland and Switzerland,” Bragiel said, adding, “Like the Swiss ski team coach is super pumped about it. The Finnish national team skiers are super pumped about it. A lot of these guys are, they race with them, so they kind of grew this camaraderie with them which is really cool.”

When the Winter Olympics end, Bragiel and Taufatofua hope to continue growing Tongan winter sports. Taufatofua said at the Olympics that he knew he wouldn’t medal in cross-country skiing, but hoped to inspire younger Tongan generations to get into winter sports.

And though there’s nothing official, Taufatofua might already be eyeing the 2020 Olympics in Beijing.

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