6 Mar 2017

Sport: Tonga encouraged by efforts at World Ski Champs

1:39 pm on 6 March 2017

The Royal Tonga Ski Federation says their placings at the Nordic World Ski Championships don't tell the full story.

Makeleta Stephan finished 105th of 107 competitors in the women's sprint qualification race in Finland last month.

But her time of 6:18.43 was a dramatic improvement on her debut effort in Sweden two years ago.

Makeleta Stephan competing at the Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti.

Makeleta Stephan competing at the Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti. Photo: Supplied / Royal Tonga Ski Federation

In Falun, she finished last of 94 skiers in the qualification race in 10:54.67, almost seven and a half minutes behind the winner.

Team Tonga's manager and head of sport, Steve Grundmann, said Stephan has shown significant improvement and, but for other mitigating factors, could have performed even better.

"Makeleta is skiing now for two years. She does that at the side," he said.

"She also was injured, she had a broken leg unfortunately in summer training on roller skis so she could only step into ski training end of fall, unfortunately."

Pita Taufatofua

Pita Taufatofua Photo: Supplied/Instagram

Grundmann was also encouraged by the performance of Olympic taekwondo star Pita Taufatofua, who finished 153rd of 156 competitors in the men's sprint qualification race in 5:44.72 - more than two and a half minutes behind the winner.

"Pita Taufatofua stepped in with his first skiing experience in January - he only was in skis for five weeks.

"For those circumstances those were two very remarkable results."

Steve Grundmann was recruited by the Royal Tonga Ski Federation three years ago, after being introduced to Secretary-General of Tonga's federation, Leafa Mataele Wawryk, at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Those games marked Tonga's debut appearance, with Bruno Banani finishing a credible 32nd in the luge competition.

Team Tonga at the Nordic World Ski Championships.

Team Tonga at the Nordic World Ski Championships. Photo: Supplied / Royal Tonga Ski Federation

Steve Grundmann said his task is to build on that foundation and create a sustainable program.

"He showed that it is definitely possible for the Kingdom of Tonga and their athletes to be successful in winter sports," he said.

"Tonga does have very good athletes, mainly in rugby. They are very physically strong people....if you give them the time and also the proper training, like you saw now with Pita Taufatofua at the world championships in Lahti.

"That is definitely possible also to do some crossover action and put different, certain athletes also on other sports.

"Of course it also takes time but in time and with required training they can also succeed in winter sports."

Giant slalom skier Kasete Skeen is also part of the Team Tonga stable that are attempting to qualify for Pyeongchang.

Tongan skier Kasete Skeen.

Tongan skier Kasete Skeen. Photo: Supplied

He failed to finish at last months Alpine World Ski Champs in St Moritz, after crashing out on his second qualifying run.

Steve Grundmann said they are also scouting for other athletes, in North America, Europe and Australia, that could come into the Tongan programme in the coming months and years.

"We do also have some other athletes in the pipeline but of course, due to the short time until Pyeongchang, this is just the future," he said.

"This is a very sustainable project. We do not want to have a one-time appearance at the Winter Games and say we've achieved our dream now we've brought Tonga to the winter games - I mean this already happened.

"It's more about to stabilise Tonga in winter sport and to also build up the team and enhance the team."