2 May 2019

Sport: Tonga's Pita Taufatofua paddling upstream in new Olympic bid

11:59 am on 2 May 2019

Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua admits he's paddling upstream in his bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics as a sprint kayaker.

The 35 year old first made global headlines with a shirtless entrance as Tonga's flagbearer at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, a feat he repeated at last year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua made headline during the 2016 Summer Olympics and 2018 Winter Games.

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua made headline during the 2016 Summer Olympics and 2018 Winter Games. Photo: AFP

After representing his country in taekwondo and cross-country skiing, Taufatofua has now taken up kayaking in a bid to become the first person this century to compete in three Olympic sports.

"It's much more aligned with being a Polynesian - it's something that's in our culture, in our heritage, in our DNA is to paddle across the Pacific," he said.

"It's something that I enjoyed as a kid going out fishing on an outrigger canoe and I just really enjoyed that process."

Pita Taufatofua wants to become an Olympic kayaker.

Pita Taufatofua wants to become an Olympic kayaker. Photo: Instagram/Pita Taufatofua

After making a name for himself on the world stage, Taufatofua said his latest calling is about more than just sport - he wants to shine a spotlight on the impact of climate change, especially in the Pacific Islands.

"I guess what we're doing is we're paddling for the planet: climate change, the oceans and it's that time in the human story where we start looking after our planet and I just want to bring awareness to that and what better way to do it than jump in a kayak and in a sport that I love and doing it that way," said the former Oceania taekwondo champion. "On a personal level I've had enough eyes on me - it's time to get eyes on the planet."

"This is bigger than myself. We need to bring awareness to these issues: how islands are going under, we're getting cyclones every year instead of once every ten years, there's plastic pollution, the fish stocks are dying - that supersedes any personal goal or dream that I have and that's what we want to do is to bring awareness to that."

The World Canoe Sprint Championships in Hungary in August will provide Taufatofua with his first chance to qualify for Tokyo in the K1 200m event, if he can secure a top-five finish, while the Oceania continental qualifier will take place in February.

"What is much harder this time is the qualification process will require me to be number one in Oceania, which I guess means beating New Zealand and Australian already-Olympic medallists just to qualify so I guess that's probably what the major challenge is going to be."

Pita Taufatofua is swapping the slopes for the water.

Pita Taufatofua is swapping the slopes for the water. Photo: AFP

With little over three months until his competitive debut, Taufatofua acknowledged time is in short supply but the Brisbane-based athlete said the three-time Olympic kayaking medallist Katrin Borchert, who won medals representing both Germany and Australia, is based on the Gold Coast and has offered to help out with the technical side of the sport.

"I've got my taekwondo coach (Master Paula Sitapa) who's now my kayak coach as well - he doesn't know much about kayaking but he's been on Youtube so he should be able to find us a few hints and tips to get us there," he said."

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua and coach Master Paula Sitapa training in Rio.

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua and coach Master Paula Sitapa training in Rio. Photo: Instagram / Pita Taufatofua

"We've been using recreational kayaks but I have tried a race kayak and the balancing is quite challenging at the moment but I feel that once we can sort out the balance the strength and conditioning will help me get over the line as quickly as possible."

Taufatofua plans to return to competitive taekwondo after the World Championships are over and hasn't ruled out competing in both sports in Tokyo if the stars align.

He said Tonga is currently going through the process of ensuring their national federation is recognised with the International Canoe Federation and ultimately would like to establish something that can benefit athletes in the Kingdom for years to come.

"It's something that I've always wanted to make sure that was set up properly anyway to go beyond me and to go to the next level of youth coming out of Tonga because it's just a sport that aligns with being Polynesian," he said.

"So if we go through the work of setting that up there's going to be thousands and thousands more people after me who can have access to these competitions."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs