He has been promoted as the ‘topless Tongan’ and had his incredible story breathlessly reported on by the likes of CNN, Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal.
But it turns out that Pita Taufatofua, the talk of the sporting world, has actually spent far more time in Brisbane than the country of his birth.
The 34-year-old is best known for two things: getting his kit off, and being one of few athletes to have ever competed at both the summer and winter Olympics.
Taufatofua first hit the headlines when – topless, oiled up and dressed in traditional Tongan garb – he carried the nation’s flag at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where he competed in taekwondo.
After amazingly qualifying for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang in cross-country skiing, Taufatofua repeated the dose, appearing shirtless at both the opening and closing ceremonies to the delight of fans across the world.
The pages of Vanity Fair are usually reserved for the likes of Ivanka Trump and Angelina Jolie but they loved Taufatofua’s story of persistence and dedication, and his commitment to showing off his rig, even in freezing South Korean temperatures.
But while the world is wrapped up in Taufatofua’s torso and his impressive sporting ability, his pre-Olympics story is just as inspirational.
The Australian background
After moving to Australia from Tonga as a child, he attended school at St Peters Lutheran College in the inner Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly and then embarked on an engineering degree while working at the school.
A very different career path followed, though, as Taufatofua spent six years working at Brisbane’s Sandgate House with at-risk youth who have found themselves homeless.
“He is upstanding, ethical and was simply fantastic at his job,” Sandgate House program manager Cheryl Nathanson told The New Daily.
“As a youth support officer, he was working with homeless youths who have very complex needs and often have problems with drugs, alcohol and mental health.
“He was extremely good at helping them through their problems.”
Nathanson said sport and exercise was a key plank of Taufatofua’s work at the centre.
“He would often go running with kids … he also managed to get us a lot of gym and boxing equipment … through exercise and sport, he was fantastic at engaging with young people,” she said.
“Everything he did was always incredibly positive.”
Showing off his mindset, Taufatofua once told People: “After the summer Games, I said: ‘You know what? I want a new challenge’.
“I want to find something that’s the hardest possible sport I can think of and see if it’s possible to get Tonga qualified within a year.”
That he made the Winter Games after just a year of training was not surprising for those who knew him, according to Nathanson.
She was also keen to point out that two young people that Taufatofua worked closely with had gone from stages of extreme drug use and homelessness to roles in the army.
A spokesperson for St Peters Lutheran College, where Taufatofua graduated in 2000, said his story would act as major motivation for current students.
“We’re extremely proud of Pita. He is a tremendous role model for the students,” the spokesperson told The New Daily.
“His attitude of giving everything a go is to be applauded … we’ll definitely be getting him back to the school to talk to students about how you set goals and that sort of thing.”
How he got to the Games
After loving the overall Olympic experience in Rio, Taufatofua set his sights on a Pyeongchang appearance in cross-country skiing, even if training proved a little tough.
His first few efforts to qualify for the Games failed but on the last day in Iceland, he booked his spot in South Korea, dubbing it “a miracle”.
And while he struggled in Pyeongchang, finishing 114th out of 119 competitors, his effort just to get there made him one of the stories of the Games.