Tongan skier eyes 2018 Winter Olympics


Former marathon runner from Makeleta Stephan has set her sights on becoming Tonga’s first Winter Olympic skier.

Makeleta Stephan competed in her first international event at the weekend when she entered the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden. The 36-year-old Germany-based skier, who only started skiing four weeks ago, is a member of the Royal Tonga Ski Federation. She would have finished the cross-country event in last place if two of the 95 competitors had not been disqualified.

“To be last in the competition, I was not surprised about that,” Stephan told Radio Australia. “Compared to the others, they do a lot more training and they grew up with this sport.”

Stephan’s final time in the 1.4-kilometre sprint was 10 minutes and 54.67 seconds. She said a fall during the race had cost her about two minutes.

Tongan sports administrators approached Stephan in November last year after spotting her at a marathon event in Europe.

“They called and asked if I wanted to join the Olympic Games Ski Federation for Tonga and I will be the first skier representing Tonga in the Olympic Games,” she said.

“And I said: ‘Yes, in four years, that’s enough time to train.’”

Six weeks ago she got another call and was told she would be competing in the Nordic World Ski Championships in Sweden. Her training started on January 17.

“I didn’t know how to ski, I was not even interested in winter sport,” Stephan said.

Asked what she was thinking when she lined up at the starting line at her first major competition in front of 36,000 spectators, she said: “I was just trying to focus on my warm up and my training.

“The last few minutes before I started my competition, I didn’t think of anything, I was just concentrating. Afterwards, I was thinking this is just hilarious.”

Stephan’s involvement in winter sport has drawn obvious comparisons to compatriot Bruno Banani – formerly known as Fuahea Semi.

Royal Tonga Ski Federation

Banani made headlines when he qualified for last year’s Sochi Winter Games, the first Tongan in history to do so.

He was selected by the German underwear manufacturer Bruno Banani and asked to change his name as part of the company’s marketing strategy.

Stephan said it was a ploy she was unwilling to repeat.

“I will never do that,” she said, laughing down the phone.

“I felt sorry for that poor guy but if he benefits from it, it’s no big deal.”

Stephan’s ultimate goal is to represent her country at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Her approach will be without gimmicks, she said.

“Inside my heart I’m pure Tongan but I work like a German.”

Meanwhile, the search for more athletes to join Team Tonga continues.

Leafa Mataele Wawryk, chief executive of the Tonga Luge Federation and Royal Tonga Ski Club, said they were looking for athletes to compete in alpine skiing, cross country skiing and snowboarding.

“Snowboarding is quite popular among Tongans since we have good athletes in surfing and skateboarding,” she said.

“To finally qualify for the Winter Olympics in luge [in 2014]is a milestone achievement that no other country in the Pacific can match.

“Here we are again committed and unwavering to do the same in skis and snowboarding.”