Big hair, big ambitions: meet Tonga’s would be Olympic skier
He smoked. He drank. He was 25kg overweight. He’s half-English. Skiing for Tonga at the 2018 Winter Olympics doesn’t seem like the logical next step for Kasete Skeen but the 34 year-old is going to give it a crack.
If Kasete Naufahu Skeen realises his aim of becoming an Olympian don’t expect him to oil up and get around in a traditional Tongan waist garment like Rio 2016 compatriot and Internet sensation Pita Taufatofua.
It’s not that Skeen wouldn’t proudly represent the island nation of 105,000 people – more likely he’d just freeze his nipples off. This is, after all, South Korea in winter, where temperatures drop to -10 degrees Celsius.
Loading the Kasete at Hintertux Glacier, Austria
A Tongan skier. Huh?
Born and raised in London to a Tongan father and English mother, Skeen enjoyed a pretty normal childhood with some intermittent trips to the European alps.
He holds down a great job as an operations manager at Opera Holland Park, regarded as one of the most cutting edge opera companies in the UK.
But after re-finding his childhood love of skiing as a 30-something Skeen became obsessed. Then one night over dinner with friends an unlikely plan was hatched.
“I told them as a joke I would become the first Tongan skier at a Winter Olympics,” Skeen, a dual-passport holder, told The Snow Gauge. “Then someone said I should actually do it.”
After some background checks he discovered Tonga actually had a skiing federation but didn’t have a senior skier in its ranks.
Now he aims to be the first Tongan alpine skier to make it to a Winter Olympics and just the second athlete from his country to qualify for the event after Bruno Banani made it to Sochi 2014 as a luger (The Banani story is an intriguing one in itself, the athlete having controversially changed his name in a marketing stunt for a lingerie company).
How he’ll do it
“I’ve had to change a lot in my life to do this,” says Skeen who will give up his job at the end of this month to pursue a Games berth in February 2018.
“I had to start giving a shit about what I ate, about my exercise. I’m not dissimilar to many Tongans. It is easy for me to put weight on and it would be probably pretty easy for me to get diabetes. Up until seven months ago that was the path my life was on.”
The actual process for qualifying for the Games in alpine events can be a little complex but it’s based on having a certain number of points from FIS-sanctioned races. Having only one competitor from any given country effectively lowers the threshold (which may or may not be the case for Tonga as some other expats have shown an interest in competing).
Getting into the technical events (giant slalom, slalom) is easier than the speed races and as you’ll note on that list from 2014 competitors from the Virgin Islands, Timor, Togo and Venezuela made the starting gate in Sochi two years ago.
Skeen doesn’t mind the Cool Runnings and Eddie the Eagle comparisons but maintains he’s deadly serious about being an Olympic skier.
He’s employed former Italian national team coach Hermann Aigner to guide him and at the end of the month Skeen will ramp up his preparations.
It starts with six weeks of glacier training in Austria, he’ll then compete in FIS-sanctioned races in December and then spend a further month in Scandinavia before a move to the Dolomites to train and base himself for competition.
New Zealand is slated for southern hemisphere training and then he’d like to bring his journey back to Tonga later next year.
Making his mark, sending a message
“We can’t ski like Austrians,” Skeen says. “We don’t have one of the world’s biggest mountain ranges and we don’t have 100,000 people out on the slopes every week.”
“But we can find our own way and our own skiing culture. It’s not just about the mountains, it is everything around it. I can bring Tongan culture to the slopes.”
There’s several balls in the air at the moment: paying for his training and expenses and actually putting in the hard work that he hopes will lead to his qualification – but Skeen wants to tie it all back to his Tongan heritage.
“I want to push a message that you can change your life. You can change the way you eat. You can exercise.”
“There are significant issues with diabetes and life expectancy in Tonga. I want to address some of them.”
Funding the dream
Skeen has a crowdfunding page to help get some seed money. His target over the next two months is 10,000 pounds. He reckons all-up a minimum of 50,000 pounds will be needed to fund him but he has a range of other sponsorship deals and further funding opportunities which he’ll seek to tap into.
Merchandise and other sponsorship opportunities are available on the site.
“People can give you free stuff but it won’t pay for flights and ski passes,” he says. “But if we can hit that 10k mark it can act as a springboard.”
Thus far Skeen has been supported by Vist and Bolle but he’s casting the net wider – hoping others will be embrace his story.
“The idea that we are not bound by the restrictions of our nations of our state that we can look beyond those borders to achieve our dreams.”
Check out Skeen’s own blog at: https://tonganskier.wordpress.com/