Shirtless Olympic sensation covers up to chase skiing dream

WATCH: The Oily Tongan takes on cross-country skiing (0:15)

Pita Taufatofua, Tonga's shirtless Olympic flag bearer, braves the cold as he trains for cross-country skiing ahead of the 2018 Winter Games. (0:15)

Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, shiny Tongan who was an instant sensation at the Rio Olympics a year ago, has lofty aspirations that go far beyond being adored for his sculpted torso.

Taufatofua said his "goal is to make history for Tonga" and, he added, to be the ultimate sportsman.

His latest venture has taken him from the martial arts mat to the snow, as Taufatofua has embarked on a cross-country skiing side gig -- with an eye toward the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.

One major hurdle: He touched snow for the first time only 18 months ago. Also, his 220-pound taekwondo-honed frame doesn't exactly lend itself to a sport that typically features athletes 20-30 pounds lighter, plus a lack of sponsorship money and funding are constant obstacles.

Coming from an island of sand and sun, he couldn't have dreamed of a bigger challenge than snow and cold. But he has the dream, and that's a start.

Taufatofua made his competitive debut on skis in February in Finland, where he finished a 1.6 km qualifying race in 5 minutes, 44.72 seconds, more than 2½ minutes behind the winner. He was back in action in July in Australia, where he saw improvement but still finished well behind the more experienced competitors.

"When you try to do something bigger than yourself, that's where your true purpose is going to be," he said. "That's what I'm trying to do with all this. We have a [Tongan] ski federation that is me and a couple people -- me and a couple athletes, Steve [Grundmann] in Germany, Leafa [Wawryk] in the U.S. And that's our ski federation."

When the world at large was first met Taufatofua 12 months ago at the Rio Games, glistening in coconut oil, he was blissfully unaware of the mania his chiseled chest had caused.

For a night, anyway.

Taufatofua awoke the day after leading the Tonga procession during the opening ceremony to countless text messages, Twitter notifications and voicemails. He'd gone viral overnight for doing nothing more than representing his people the best way he knew how: sporting a traditional ta'ovala dress.

That the taekwondo specialist had but a fleeting moment of competition in Rio -- he lost his opening heavyweight division match to Iran's Sajjad Mardani -- seems to matter little. A year after the 33-year-old became one of the breakouts of the Games, he still fields regular media and entertainment requests.

And as long as he has the platform -- and the interviewer doesn't ask him to make his entrance without his shirt on -- he's going to use it.

"I have a father who comes from this tiny island in the Pacific, and if you look at a map, you see there is just a dot," Taufatofua said. "Tongans call it the 'little period' because you don't actually see any land mass. But Polynesians come from a very proud tradition and culture. We were the only Pacific island that wasn't colonized, and we have a warrior culture. But we're also humble at the same time, and with that pride and that humility. I thought the best way to represent Tonga was to be me, to be Tongan, to represent my father, my grandfather and my whole lineage."

Taufatofua noticed something early while making the media rounds after his oiled-up opening: Interviewers and reporters continuously deemed him an "overnight success."

After a 20-year pursuit of an Olympic dream, Taufatofua's "success" was anything but "overnight." He had near misses before the previous two Games, finishing second in the Oceania taekwondo qualification tournament but getting injured in the process both times, leaving him unable to compete in Beijing or London.

But Taufatofua was not about to let slip away a dream he'd had since he was 12, when Tonga's first and only Olympic medalist returned as a hero to an adoring homeland. Taufatofua remembers chasing down 1996 Atlanta Olympics super heavyweight boxing silver medalist Paea Wolfgramm, jumping up and down to draw his attention and holding up the letter P while other young Tongan boys held up the A-E-A.

"He waved, and for me that was the moment," Taufatofua said. "I thought he was waving at me and I said, 'Oooh, I'm going to be that. I'm going to be an Olympian.' "

The question looms large: Can he do it twice? And in two different sports, at that?

In addition to his cross-country skiing pursuit, Taufatofua will also continue to train in taekwondo, and he hopes to qualify for -- and win a match in -- the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Will he sparkle and shine the way he did a year ago, when he caught the world's attention and landed on the "Today" show and Harry Connick Jr.'s "Harry" talk show?

Even if he doesn't carry the flag for Tonga in the parade of nations again, the answer is yes.

"That 12-year-old who is watching, that was me once," he said. "Paea, the boxer, he was that 12-year-old once. The challenges haven't ended. I have more now, because now the whole world's watching. But as long as we keep in the back of our minds what it's for -- those 12-year-olds out there, the next generation -- there is going to be a way to get there."