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Nordic combined skier Akito Watabe won his first World Cup event in two seasons on Sunday, moving to within one win of equaling Kenji Ogiwara’s Japan record of 19 World Cup victories.

The win at Lahti was Watabe’s first since he won the season-ending individual Gundersen event in Schonach in March 2018. He finished that year as the overall Nordic combined World Cup winner with eight wins.

“I thought there was no way I’d win,” Watabe said.

“I raced well and my skis were running smoothly. It’s been a tough season, so I’m all the more happier. It feels different from all the other wins,” he said.

Starting the cross-country segment with a nine-second advantage over nearest challenger Jens Luraas Oftebro of Norway, Watabe remained in the lead pack throughout the 10-km race. After several lead changes with Oftebro, Watabe went ahead after 7.5 km and never trailed again, crossing the line in a winning time of 25 minutes, 41.1 seconds.

Norway’s Joergen Graabak took second 2.9 seconds behind Watabe, followed by Germany’s Vinzenz Geiger.

In the jumping round earlier in the morning, Watabe posted a top jump of 127 meters. He and Oftebro exchanged the lead in the later part of the cross-country race, but it was Watabe who pulled away while Oftebro faded down to fourth place.

Watabe bulked up during the offseason by training to increase his muscular strength, but the added weight also caused him to struggle earlier this season. He had finished within the top 10 only three times this season before Sunday.

“Many things went well today,” Watabe said. “I can’t say I’m back in good shape yet. I hoped to be able to win. It was a little gift after my struggles.”

Ogiwara, a three-time overall Nordic combined World Cup champion, collected his 19 wins during the 1992-1996 seasons. He also helped Japan win back-to-back Olympic golds in the Nordic combined team event in the 1992 Albertville and 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games.

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