As far as international debuts go, it wasn’t one that Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua will particularly treasure.

But the road to Tokyo is a long way, and there are several potholes to negotiate. The challenge is to ensure one of those potholes doesn’t damage your chassis, and Taufatofua is still confident he can make the canoe sprint start line, and in doing so, create Olympic history.

Taufatofua has been to two Olympics already – a summer Olympics in taekwondo, and a winter Olympics as a cross-country skier. His image went viral when he marched at both opening ceremonies shirtless and covered in coconut oil – even in freezing cold Pyongchang.

Earlier this year the Tongan announced he wanted to go to the Olympics again, this time as a sprint canoeist. Water sports was part of Tonga’s heritage, he said, and it made sense for him to give it a go.

It’s turned out to be more difficult than he thought it would be, getting the right equipment, learning the best techniques. But he persevered, and on Wednesday he headed out onto the water in Szeged to make his international canoe sprint debut.

It was a baptism of fire for the 35-year-old. The wind had picked up, and he was drawn in an outside lane, so no protection at all from the breeze.

As a result he struggled to get the nose of his kayak in the starting block. And then when he finally did, he got left behind at the start, and, well, the rest is history.

“The wind took me at the start, and I lost it from the beginning,” Taufatofua said.

“I guess it had to happen that way, it’s probably the worst 200 metres I’ve done in my life, even in training. But I can’t control everything. When I did get straight, I just tried to go for it and it just didn’t work.”

The important thing is, just by getting on the water, and getting out of the start blocks, Tonga, and Taufatofua, can now compete in the Oceania qualifiers next year, where his chances of earning an Olympic quota will be much better.

Wednesday’s experience didn’t dent his confidence.

“I’ll be at the Olympics. February, that’s six months,” he said.

“Today was after one week of training, so it is what it is. The dream is still alive. Some days you wake up on the left side, some days you wake up on the right side. Today I woke up on the ground.

“Truth is I wasn’t nervous. My first time in the blocks, my first time with the wind, I just couldn’t hold it.”

Taufatofua is still doing taekwondo, just in case the canoe dream doesn’t work out for him. He's also toying with the idea of competing in both events at Tokyo, which would put him in a pretty unique club.

Ever since the day he made his canoeing announcement, Taufatofua has faced enormous scrutiny and plenty of media attention. For him it’s all water off a kayak’s tail.

“I don’t feel so much pressure, I deal quite well with criticism and stuff. Everyone’s underestimated me my whole life, so I’ve made two Olympics, I’ll make three,” he said.

“Everyone has been supportive so far. Everyone from the ICF, and all the athletes, their all supportive. It’s such a beautiful sport, it’s such a privilege to be here on such a beautiful day and race, or half-race, the support has been fantastic.

“This had a really rough start, but it is what it is. I didn’t have a very long time to train, but I got caught. But I’ll make it. I’ll throw everything behind trying to get there.

“At the end of the day, God’s will, if he wants me there I’ll get there, if he doesn’t, then I’ll still try to get there.”

The journey continued on Thursday when he and Malakai Ahokava set out in a Tongan touring boat to compete in the men's K2 500. They made a better job of the start this time, but still finished at the back of the field.

Taufatofua didn't mind, It's just one more step on a journey to prove to everyone that people can achieve their dreams, no matter what the obstacles. And the type of boat.

"It's a Tongan touring boat that we use to help old people get between the islands," Taufatofua said.

"It's very stable, but very slow. But to be honest, we'd paddle on a rubber duck if we had to."

Taufatofua and Ahokova have one more chance to show their stuff in Szeged, in the K2 200 on Friday - in a kayak, not a floating bath toy.

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