Tongan athlete narrowly misses out on Winter Olympics

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Luge, one of the world’s fastest and most dangerous sports on ice, isn’t usually associated with the Pacific island Kingdom of Tonga.

But one Tongan athlete, Bruno Banani may change that.

Despite narrowly missing-out on competing in this year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, he is aiming to become the first Pacific Islander to represent his country in the Winter Olympics.

Over the last 12 months, Bruno Banani has been training hard and making his mark on some of the world’s best known luge tracks in Germany, Latvia, Norway and Canada.

In luge, competitors lie face-up on a sled and steer down an icy tunnel at speeds of about 140 kilometres an hour.

Most participants train for years, but after just a few months Bruno finished 47th out of 58 competitors in one of the lead-up competitions to the Luge World Cup.

2010 qualifier

That led many to believe he might be able to qualify for the 2010 Winter Olympics including his coach, Isabel Barschinski.

“He has done an incredible job. Everyone was surprised at how well he was luging,” said Ms Barschinski.

“There was small chance we could qualify for the Olympics but Bruno crashed in the last qualification round and that was it.”

Despite the crash, Ms Barschinski says Bruno has made a significant impact on the luge world, as has his team mate Taniela Tufunga.

Until 12 months ago neither Bruno – a 22-year-old computer science student – or Taniela – a 20-year-old recruit for the Tonga Defence Service – had ever attempted to luge.

Despite their lack of experience in luge, Ms Barschinski says their progress is remarkable.

“They are pretty new and what they’ve done in a year takes other athletes years or decades,” she said.

“We didn’t make the Olympics but what they’ve done everyone says is incredible, so I hope with some time and training there can be big surprises in the World Cup.”

The crash was a major disappointment for everyone backing the Tongan luge team.

Luge’s profile

Spokeswoman for the Tongan luge team, Leafa Mataele Wawryk says the Tongan team is still committed to raising the profile of the sport.

“We’re going work very hard with our Team Tonga to make sure we have a solid sponsorship behind us so we can continue to maybe get more kids, more young Tongans to participate including maybe a women’s team.”

“And as for Bruno and Taniela…this is in their blood. They want to do this, I won’t stop now and I will work so they can participate and hopefully make it to the next World Cup and hopefully get a medal.”

Bruno has now taken a break from training to visit family in Tonga, New Zealand and Australia.

However, he says he’s determined to continue competing and still hopes to represent his country in the Winter Olympics.