For an island nation, just competing in the Winter Games is an accomplishment. Winning a medal is a whole different accomplishment.
Shirtless Tongan Pita Taufatofua competed in the Winter Olympics because he knew by just being there, he was already winning. He knew he wasn’t competing for a medal, but he was competing for visibility and pride. He wanted to share the message that kids watching him at home could be the next Olympic athlete at a Winter Games despite not being surrounded by winter weather. After finishing in the freestyle cross-country race in 114th place, he was anything but dejected.
After the race, he had a simple message for kids at home: “It’s your turn next.”
A five hour plane ride away is New Zealand. A much larger island nation, it’s known for its high-level rugby, not winter sports. Last night, two teenagers helped draw the attention away from rugby and towards snowboarding and skiing.
Zoi Sadowski Synnott ended a 26-year drought when she took bronze in the inaugural ladies’ big air completion. It was the country’s first podium finish since Annelise Coberger took New Zealand’s only previous Winter Games medal in the women’s slalom in 1992.
She landed a switch backside 900 on her second run to earn a score of 157.50. She wasn’t even born the last time New Zealand won a Winter Olympics medal.
At 16 years old and 353 days, she became the youngest New Zealander to win an Olympic medal in any sport, winter or summer.
A few hours later, fellow 16-year-old Nico Porteous scored a bronze medal in men’s freeski halfpipe to earn New Zealand’s third Winter Olympic medal. At 16 years and 91 days, he broke Sadowski Synnott’s short-lived age record.
Porteous’ bronze medal was a shocking turn of events in the men’s free ski halfpipe contest. Porteous had a huge second run in the halfpipe. He started off with a double cork 1440 and continued to land tricks including back-to-back double cork 1260s. He earned a score of 94.80 and temporarily held the lead. The 16-year-old was so surprised at his scores that he literally dropped his skis and gasped.
He also wasn’t born yet the last time New Zealand medaled in 1992 and was still shocked after the event.
“I’ve only had about 30 minutes to think about it,” Porteousuttered. “I’m still pretty confused about what’s going on. I just can’t believe it.”
The duo have some company in trying to change New Zealand’s winter sports culture, or lack thereof.
Ski cross athlete Jamie Prebble is the first ski cross Olympian from New Zealand. He made a major breakthrough in 2017 when he won a silver medal at the ski cross world championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain. He was the first freestyle skier representing New Zealand to win a medal at the world championships.
Ultimately Prebble fell short of a medal in the Olympics. He came in third in 1/8 final heat, needing a second place finish to advance to the quarterfinals. But just like Taufatofua, just showing up and being visible was a start to changing the culture.
Prebble lamented before his race, "There has been a lot of interest and we’ve been getting some traction. People are starting to get behind it a lot more. It's up to me what happens on the day. It’s on at three in the afternoon (in New Zealand) so people will be watching.”
Where Taufatofua and Prebble came up short, Sadowski Synnott and Porteous succeeded. The pair’s medals immediately went viral on social media in their home country of New Zealand. In an instant, they helped changed the conversation from rucks and scrums to corks and landings.
Sadowski Synnott’s coach, Mitch Brown, said he was sure the two medals would help raise interest in sports other than rugby.
Sadowski Synnott doesn’t expect an immediate change in New Zealand, but she’s hoping by winning, it won’t take another 26 years before someone wins again.
She remarked, "I just hope a lot more people go out and try snowboard and see how much fun it is. I hope I inspire some people to go out and ride."