Grit and goodwill fuel Tongan skier's Olympic dream

Neil Sands

Wellington (AFP) - Kasete Skeen admits the notion of becoming Tonga's first-ever Olympic alpine skier began as a joke -- but qualifying for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games has become a life-changing obsession for the affable 34-year-old.

In his quest to represent the Pacific island nation -- situated in the balmy tropics far from any ski runs -- Skeen has given up his job and moved to Austria to train full-time.

"Before I started on this journey, I'd skied for a total of 45 days," he told AFP. "Most ski racers have been skiing their entire lives since they were small children."

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Just 12 months ago, Skeen was a construction project manager comfortably settled into life in his native London and had never considered becoming an Olympian.

Breakfast often consisted of "coffee and a roll-up (cigarette)", he loved indulging in a relaxing gin-and-tonic, while also maintaining a serious Yorkshire pudding habit.

It all changed while dining at a restaurant with friends one night when discussion turned to an upcoming skiing holiday.

Skeen -- born in London to a British mother and Tongan father -- quipped that he loved the sport so much he was going to represent the Pacific country at the Olympics.

The idea took root and before long Skeen had started a crowdfunding campaign and was in contact with Tongan officials.

While there are obvious comparisons with the Jamaican bobsled team and Britain's Eddie the Eagle, Skeen insists his winter Olympic bid is no novelty and he has applied himself 100 percent to achieving the dream.

"Once I fully committed to the idea, I took it seriously... the further I go the stronger my commitment becomes," he said.

That has involved uprooting his life and dedicating himself to a gruelling training regime under the guidance of Hermann Aigner, former coach of Italy's alpine ski team.

- 'Amazing coach' -

At 1.91 metres (6ft 3in) tall, Skeen concedes he more closely resembles one of Tonga's famously burly rugby players than the winter Olympians who can reach 150kph (93mph) racing down the mountainside.

But he has shed more than 25 kilograms (55 pounds) in the gym and last month began honing his racing skills with Aigner on the Austrian slopes.

"I do feel a bit like I'm in a training montage sometimes," he said.

"I feel lucky really, Hermann is such an amazing coach and to be working with someone of his skill and experience makes a huge difference."

Skeen will begin competing in December, attempting to accumulate points to make it to Pyeongchang in his chosen discipline of giant slalom.

"You have to develop a hyper awareness of your body, which includes the skis," he said.

"A racing turn is a tremendously complex action with many elements carried out at the limit of physical possibility."

His crowdfunding goal of 10,000 pounds (US$12,500) is 70 percent completed at

"I find any support surprising really and very heartening," he said. "People I haven't spoken to in years have donated and even people I've never spoken to or met."

He said striving to represent Tonga had brought him closer to his roots.

"Despite the fact that I grew up the UK, Tonga has always been a big part of my life and identity," he said.

"But this has been a reason to reach out to a lot of people, look into my family history and engage and reconnect with my Tongan side."

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