When Kasete Skeen strolled into the Tongan embassy in London to enquire about becoming the nation’s first Olympic alpine skier, he expected to be laughed out of the building. Instead, Kasete was shocked, not only be their “overwhelming kindness and support”, but to learn that Tonga already had a snow sports committee due to a previous king’s obsession with winter sports—and have even competed in the luge. “They simply asked how they could help me,” recounts Kasete, who was born in London to a Tongan father and British mother. “Once I had the full backing of the government and the skiing federation of Tonga, it spurred me on to take it even more seriously, to see how far I could go. And I’m still going.”
What makes his story even more Disney-esque is that up until six months ago, Kasete was a smoking, drinking alpine novice, having skied once on a school trip, aged 12, and later, on only a handful of occasions during annual trips to Sweden to visit his girlfriend’s family. “When I began my training program in the Alps last year, I had only skied for a total of 45 days,” he tells me, via Skype, from London. “I recently had a conversation with a parent whose kid didn’t start skiing until they were 12, and they were concerned that they had left it too late. I told them that I’m sure they’ll be okay, as I didn’t start until I was 34!” Last month, Kasete completed “some really tough fields” alongside the Swiss and Italian teams and recounts that he was the only competitor to receive a round of applause at the end of each one: “Some people even want their photos taken with me, which is really weird, but also cool.”
Save for the “odd glass of wine once a month”, Kasete, who previously worked as a musician, has given up the ciggies and the booze. “I just had a general desire to change my life,” says the skier. “Part and parcel of the whole enterprise was to get into shape. Giving up those things was not difficult because I had a goal to focus on.”
That goal — the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea — will be achieved through collecting points (or, more precisely, lack of — like in golf, the less he scores the better), accumulated through international competitions.
“I had travelled a little bit before, but not for any great lengths of time, so it’s nice to see some more parts of the world,” he tells me. “I’ve also discovered some nooks and crannies of Europe that most people don’t get to see, such as Sainte Foy in France.” He is currently based in Italy’s Val di Fassa, but will soon head to Queenstown, also taking the chance to catch up with extended family in Auckland, which, Kasete jokes, is all part of his “eternal winter”.
The skier admits that he wasn’t initially prepared for the psychological challenges of his sporting adventure. “Most skiers are part of clubs and teams, but I spend a lot of time on my own — it’s not like there’s a big group of Tongan skiers out there,” he says. “I do often feel isolated, and it gives you lots of time to think.”
Spending so much time in the outdoors certainly alters one’s mindset.
“Yes, definitely. It gives you a sense of scale, and compels you to take stock of what is important in life when you are surrounded by all those mountains and endless views. The weather up there can also change so quickly, and that too throws things into perspective. You realise just how fragile you are.”
I finish up by asking Kasete what he has most learnt about himself on the journey thus far. Interestingly, he says it has been less about finding out who he is, rather who he is not. “You start to strip back yourself,” he continues, “lose certain constructs that you thought previously defined you. It becomes this search for yourself. But it’s weird because you’re doing it in a way that is dispelling the thought of who you presumed you were, without necessarily providing the answer of who you are. It’s a feeling of being more true to yourself.”