Endurance

Sitting in a small airport in Istanbul, Pita Taufatofua, a former taekwondo athlete, tries to calm his breathing. As he remembers his epic 6-hour taxi ride across five countries that got him here, he begins to come to terms with the fact that his Olympic journey will not make it to Winter.

Ataturk Airport is not a reflection of the 34-year-old’s inner rhythms. By contrast, the scene around him is tranquil – a few people move slowly inside, and the ice-cold night is motionless outside the windows. Moments earlier Pita had mashed a control panel on an aerobridge door in a last ditch attempt to open the gate. Turkish Airlines had shut the gate early on his flight to Croatia, despite the delay on their previous flight from Georgia. He had come so close.

The flight he had missed would have taken him to Croatia for his last chance at qualifying in the Winter Olympics. The mashing of the controls did not get him in trouble, thankfully, although that would have been a welcome distraction from the gut wrenching pain he felt now.

Pita had ditched the taekwondo pads for rental skis just over a year earlier, to chase a wild dream of taking the small island nation of 100-thousand people to the Winter Olympics. If successful, he would become the 88th person in history to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

The 6-hour taxi ride came after his most recent failed attempt to qualify for the Games. A big dump of snow the night before made his hard track skis difficult to use, mix that with the fact he’s 30kgs heavier than the next opponent – it made for tricky qualifying conditions. So Pita’s race left the snow and moved into a taxi with a red roof light (what was that even for?).

As Pita sat pensive he thought ‘I can sit on my chair crying about what could have been, or I can go and find some good quality chocolate and start planning “what’s next?”.’. As the warm image of chocolate washed the cold adrenaline from his mind, Pita may well have been drawing inspiration from another man who, 104-years earlier, faced a similar (if more life-threatening) moment.

Ernest Shackleton left Britain for Antarctica on a mission that almost didn’t happen. In August, 1914, Shackleton’s small 204-ton ship, the Endurance, sailed for the coast of the Weddell Sea. The party he travelled with hoped to cross the Antarctic continent viat the South Pole to the Ross Sea.

On the way, pack ice damaged their vessel, leaving all 28-men standard for over a year living on the rations from the wreckage. Finally they reached Elephant Island in April 1916. That was just the beginning.

With winter fast approaching, and supplies running out, Shackleton had to make a decision. They set a course on one of their life boats for South Georgia – a journey of more than 1200kms, about the same distance between Canberra and Brisbane.

Incredibly, the open lifeboat survived the trip, carrying the now crew of five to South Georgia. Infinite courage and skill allowed the crew to survive 16-days across some of the most wild seas in the world.

Pita may well have drawn inspiration from this effort as he swallows chocolate and checks his phone. The dream wasn’t over yet.

That night he finds a glimmer of hope. There’s one final, less publicised qualifying event 4-thousand kilometres from Istanbul.

In Iceland, in the arctic circle, the winter is icy and the snow is heavy. Two days from now he has one more opportunity on this remote island, so he books his ticket. Pita’s team are not well prepared for the intensity of the winter so far north. They take their time to wind up the fjords to the competition site.

The effort is worth it because the Tongan who, two years ago, walked into Rio with a flag and an oiled up body to become an internet sensation, proved he is made of the real stuff.

Pita qualified for the cross country skiing and will compete in Korea this week. The timetable is friendly to us in Australia, NZ and Tonga – only a few hours different.

It’s hard to understand his achievement. Good luck Pita!

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