Watabe medals in 3rd straight Winter Games

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Akito Watabe skis during the cross-country section of the individual large hill of the Nordic combined on Tuesday.

For the third Winter Olympics in a row, Akito Watabe has a medal to take home, but the color is different this time.

Watabe finished with a bronze in the individual large hill of the Nordic combined at the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre on Tuesday night, after taking the silver in normal hill events at Sochi and Pyeongchang.

After placing fifth in the ski jumping round, he was in the lead group in the cross-country skiing segment. Watabe becomes the first Japanese skier to win three Olympic medals in Nordic combined.

There were three other members of the Japan team in the competition at the Beijing Olympics. Ryota Yamamoto finished 12th despite placing second after the jumping portion, Watabe’s younger brother, Yoshito Watabe, finished 25th and Hideaki Nagai 31st.

Norway had a 1-2 finish in the race. Joergen Graabak won the gold, adding to the silver he won in the individual normal hill on Feb. 9, the two gold medals in individual large hill and the team competition he won in Sochi in 2014 and the silver in the team event in Pyeongchang. Jens Luraas Oftebro took silver.

Near the end of the race, Watabe was in a heated three-way battle with Graabak and Oftebro. He was overtaken by the Norwegians in the final stretch, but Watabe finished only 0.6 second from gold and just 0.2 second from silver.

“It is not the medal color I had aimed for, but I got a tangible result,” Watabe said. “It’s an obsession.”

Watabe demonstrated his ability to adjust as a veteran Nordic combined skier.

Because he placed fifth in the ski jumping portion, Watabe started only 54 seconds after the top jumper took off in the cross-country section, making a podium finish a big possibility.

During the season, Watabe had been unable to firm up his approach posture for the jump. The overall World Cup champion in the 2017-2018 season, he has not had a podium finish on the circuit this season. Even at these Olympics, he finished seventh in the Nordic combined individual normal hill competition, affected by his poor ski jumping performance that had him starting ninth in the cross-country.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Akito Watabe holds a Japanese flag to celebrate finishing with the bronze after the Nordic combined individual large hill on Tuesday.

After the normal hill event, his trainer gave Watabe a bit of advice on using the muscles at the back of his legs. That sparked a eureka moment. With the trainer’s hints, Watabe worked on his awareness over a short period of time and made adjustments so that the muscles he wants to use actually work as he desires. That brought back the feeling he had at his prime for the approach.

He has always been confident in the cross-country skiing portion. Watabe has felt his skiing skills improving year by year and has become more adept at reading the intentions of his rivals.

“Honestly, it was tough,” Watabe said, regarding the four-year span between the 2018 Pyeongchang Games and the Beijing Olympics. “There have been many occasions I could not perform the way I should have.”

Watabe has described the Olympics as a “mountain that I have never summited.”

After many struggles, Watabe has captured a third straight Olympic medal.

“Though I have not reached to the summit,” Watabe said, “I have been able to observe this mountain from various angles and have had a wonderful time.”