PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – With the gold medal he has been waiting for his entire career at stake, Akito Watabe went all in to win the Nordic combined large hill 10-km final.
“I was speaking with (coach Takanori Kono) and we were saying that if we want to win a gold medal, we’d have to do something different, something the others couldn’t predict,” Watabe said after finishing fifth Tuesday.
“Otherwise we wouldn’t stand a chance. So I started driving up the pace from where no one would expect, towards the back of the course on the first lap.
“The chances of me running away with it were slim, but we agreed that I (would) try to keep pushing as long as I can.”
It wasn’t long enough.
After finishing first in the ski jumping portion to start with a 1-second lead over Norway’s Jarl Magnus Riiber, Watabe chose to take the cross-country race right to the German trio of Eric Frenzel, Johannes Rydzek and Fabian Riessle, who eventually swept the podium.
Frenzel, who edged Watabe for the normal hill crown on Feb. 14, Rydzek and Riessle started fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, with Frenzel starting 24 seconds after Watabe.
A 24-second cushion on Frenzel wasn’t bad, but wasn’t ideal either. In the days leading up to the large hill, Watabe had said he wanted 40 seconds on the field’s fastest skiers.
After the ski jumping leg, Watabe was torn: Should I stay or should I go?
“I’m ahead, but not that far ahead,” he said. “I’m debating whether to try and run with it. The odds of going wire-to-wire aren’t great, but I don’t want any regrets, either.
“I’ll try to be aggressive, but will keep in mind I need to have something left in the tank if and when they catch me.”
Watabe, the current World Cup leader, decided to set a breakneck pace from early on and dare the Germans to keep up. He doesn’t regret making the decision, but admits it may have been the wrong one.
“I really pushed it during the first half of the race, tried to pull away from them as much as I can,” he said. “I probably spent too much energy too fast and didn’t have anything left.”
Watabe said two factors led to his defeat, the first of which was the fast pace he set. The second was Riiber. The 20-year-old penned a subplot to Watabe’s script, inserting himself into the Japanese skier’s showdown with the Germans, who were led at the finish line by Rydzek.
Riiber, who finished fourth in his Olympic debut, had every opportunity to overtake Watabe. Instead, he stayed right behind the Japanese. Riiber’s lurking presence over his shoulder, however, distracted Watabe.
“The Norwegian skied well today,” Watabe said. “It’s the only way Riiber knows how to race, and I knew he was saving himself during the trip. It was kind of annoying because even though he was skiing well enough to move in front, he never did.”
The Germans, who made their nation the first to sweep the Nordic combined Olympic podium in 82 years, felt Riiber’s tactics presented them with a golden opportunity.
Frenzel, who has now denied Watabe normal hill gold at two straight Olympics, told Kyodo News that by stalking Watabe, Riiber helped the three Germans exploit the four-time Olympian’s frustration.
“For us, it brought them to us to close the gap,” said Frenzel, the bronze medalist. “We wanted to go for good teamwork and in the end, it was important for us to make a strong sprint, so I think it was good for us.”
But not for Watabe, who was sixth in the large hill event four years ago in Sochi. There, he said, he had a whole different feel about the games, though he could not pinpoint exactly why on Tuesday.
“In Sochi, I thought I left everything out there and felt good about it. But today, something wasn’t right,” Watabe said. “The gold medal still isn’t within reach.
“I’m wondering what I ought to do now. I don’t think the tactic itself was wrong. I just need the physical strength to execute it. I’ve been working on my jumps a lot this season, so I’m sure that took away from my skiing. But I can probably ski better, and even jump better so I can start with the 30-, 40-second leads I want. I’ve got a long way to go.”
He continued: “I can see the summit. I just can’t quite figure out how to make the climb yet. But I need to be able to close out races like this in order to be a true champion.”