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Watabe brothers ready for Sochi tilt

Kyodo

Akito Watabe will take his third crack at an Olympic medal when the Nordic combined competition begins at the Sochi Games on Feb. 12.

Watabe, who competed for Japan at the 2006 Turin Games and again at Vancouver in 2010, is going in search of his first Olympic medal in the discipline and Japan’s first since the 1994 Lillehammer Games.

“I’m so happy,” said Watabe after he was named to the Olympic team on Tuesday. “I expect to give all I have in whatever circumstances I face and make the most of this exclusive opportunity.”

This time, the 25-year-old will be joined by his younger brother, Yoshito, who will make his Olympic debut at Sochi.

Yoshito, 22, has a pair of World Cup podium finishes to his credit, an individual third a year ago in Oslo, and a team bronze last December in Kuusamo, Finland, where his 144.5-meter jump was the second longest of the competition.

The younger Watabe said he had to get over his elation at being named to the team.

“I want to put that behind me . . . and muster all my strength in pursuit of winning a medal,” he said.

The Watabes are the first brothers to compete for Japan at the same Olympics since 1998, when twin brothers Kenji and Tsugiharu Ogiwara competed in Nordic combined at the Nagano Games.

Hideaki Nagai, who has yet to reach an individual Cup podium and who, like Yoshito Watabe, will be making his Olympic debut, was also on the team podium last month along with Akito Watabe and Taihei Kato. Yusuke Minato is the fifth member of the Sochi team.

“I’m grateful to have been selected,” Minato said. “I’m going to concentrate on the things I need to do so I can contribute all I have to the Japan team.”

Since Vancouver, where Japan’s best finish in Nordic combined was a team sixth, the elder Watabe has become one of the stalwarts of the world circuit, with four individual victories and 20 podium finishes.

Watabe, who excels in the cross-country portion, won his first summer Grand Prix championship last year, and has four podium finishes in six World Cup events this season.

Akito missed January’s first two World Cup meets due to influenza.

“It’s a good thing it (the illness) didn’t happen right before the Olympics,” he said. “I don’t feel any sense of panic and my ambition to win a gold medal has not wavered.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to take part in all the events. But I intend to get my feet on the ground and compete with an eye on the Olympics.

“Whatever I compete in (at Sochi), be it individual or team, my aim is gold.”

But the path to gold is by no means wide open, when a defending Olympic champion and a force on the World Cup circuit is not even the gold medal favorite.

The No. 1 candidate for Sochi gold is Germany’s Eric Frenzel. Like Akito Watabe, Frenzel came into his own following Vancouver, where he won team bronze. Last season’s World Cup champion, Frenzel is leading the standings this season by a good margin.

Jason Lamy Chappuis of France followed his Vancouver Games gold medal in the normal-hill combined with three consecutive overall World Cup titles, but the 27-year-old has since been eclipsed on the circuit by Frenzel and is third in this season’s standings.