Coming from countries with no snow is no barrier for these athletes.
Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, Marcel Hirscher, Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin. These are a few of names that will dominate the conversation when the PyeongChang Winter Olympics kick off in just under a week’s time.
But the Olympics have never just been about the gold, silver and bronze, and the best Olympic narratives often come from where you’d least expect. The stories of Eddie the Eagle (Great Britain), Steven Bradbury (Australia) and the Jamaican bobsled team have become part of Olympic folklore – not because they were red hot favourites in their events, but because they captured the attention and admiration of the viewers.
PyeongChang will undoubtedly have a few of its own heroes emerge from anonymity. We’ve picked five Olympic underdogs to keep your eyes on, and you never know … they might just “do a Bradbury“.
Pita Taufatofua – Tonga
There’s no snow in Tonga, but that hasn’t stopped çross-country skier Pita Taufatofua from chasing his Winter Olympic dream. Taufatofua will join an exclusive club of athletes to have competed in both the summer and winter Olympic Games, having also captured the attention of the world in Rio 2016 – both as Tonga’s bare-chested, oiled up flag bearer, and as an athlete in his preferred taekwondo event.
What makes Taufatofua’s journey especially remarkable is that the 34-year-old athlete hadn’t seen snow until two years ago, and has been skiing for just a little over a year. Completing most of his qualifying requirements in roller ski races, he then left it until the very last day of the qualifying period to cement his place in PyeongChang.
For an understanding of just how far he has come in a short space of time, watch the video below that Taufatofua created to help drive his fundraising efforts. Footage of his early days on two planks will give all aspiring skiers cause for hope! Skip to 01:11 and you’ll know what we mean.
Arabella Ng – Hong Kong
Another athlete defying odds in a place that doesn’t see snow (you’ll notice a running theme here). Meet Arabella Ng, who, at the tender age of 16, is carrying Hong Kong’s Olympic hopes squarely on her shoulders.
Ng will compete in both the slalom and giant slalom events, up against the likes of World Cup champion Mikaela Shiffrin and former Olympic gold medallist Viktoria Rebensburg. Not an easy task in anyone’s books, but particularly tough for Ng given the short timeframe in which she has had to prepare.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Ng’s father revealed that her daughter had found out just before Christmas that she may be in line to represent Hong Kong in PyeongChang.
“Most families would be planning for 12 months before the games, while we have four weeks to prepare.”
Jeffrey Webb – Malaysia
Lindsay Vonn has played a minor part in an intriguing line of events that is about to deliver Malaysia its first ever Winter Olympics representative, and yet she probably isn’t aware of it.
It was Vonn’s former coach who suggested to Jeffrey Webb at a training academy in Washington state that he should consider representing his native country at international level. At roughly the same time, Othman Mirzan, grandson of former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, was hatching plans of his own to develop a national skiing association and put the sport on the map in Malaysia.
The two young men, both enrolled and universities in the U.S. and with a shared passion for skiing, inevitably met. And while both men competed for Malaysia at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, it was Webb who was ultimately successful in qualifying for PyeongChang, with Mirzan subsequently taking on the role of team manager.
Congratulations to @official_jeffreywebb on being the first ever qualified Malaysian for the Winter Olympics. I’ll be alongside him at #pyeongchang2018 as Malaysia makes history in Alpine Skiing. Jeffrey has worked arduously, sacrificed and trained diligently for his country, and I’m proud to be his Team Manager. #skimalaysia #harimausalji
Cheyenne Goh – Singapore
18-year-old Cheyenne Goh is about to become Singapore’s first ever Winter Olympian, but she’ll be looking to channel the success of former Australian Olympian Steven Bradbury when she takes the line on the ice in two weeks’ time.
The former hockey player-turned short track speed skater lists the Aussie cult hero as one of her major inspirations, and not just because of his last dash heroics to claim gold.
“He’d been working hard in the sport for many years, so it’s not like it came out of thin air – it just shows anything can happen and, if you work hard sometimes, opportunities will come up that you can take”, said Goh in an interview with Singapore’s Straits Times.
“He was the first Australian to win a (winter) gold medal and he was an underdog, so he shows that there’s hope for everybody.”
Ngozi Onwumere, Seun Adigun and Akuoma Omeoga – Nigeria
The Olympics haven’t yet begun but the Nigerian bobsled team is already creating media waves, with a lively appearance on Ellen and features in several major publications. If there were points for energy, these women would be favourites for gold.
Onwumere, Adigun and Omeoga’s route to PyeongChang has an uncanny resemblance to the story told in cult film Cool Runnings, which depicted the Jamaican bobsled team’s journey from laughing stocks to legends at the Calgary Olympics in 1988.
Like the Jamaicans, the Nigerian women all came to the sport from a background in track, and have also revealed that they do much of their training in warm weather. A positive result in PyeongChang and we dare say Hollywood might be knocking on the door!