Germany won five of the nine Nordic combined medals up for grabs at PyeongChang 2018, including all three golds. Two of them were claimed by Johannes Rydzek, who made his contribution to the German clean sweep by winning the individual large hill and then helping his team land the large hill/4x5km title. In doing so, he extended a personal medal collection that also includes team bronze from Vancouver 2010 and team silver from Sochi 2014. Just for good measure, the prolific Rydzek also has six World Championship golds to his name, four of them coming in 2017 alone.
“If you are born in Oberstdorf, you probably get your winter sport gene automatically,” says Johannes Rydzek on his official website. Famed for its ski jumping facilities, his Bavarian home town is a venue for the annual Four Hills Tournament and has twice hosted the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships.
“I used to go cross-country skiing with my parents,” recounts the German. “My father was a volunteer at the Four Hills Tournament, which was also the reason why I’ve always wanted to jump.” Attracted to both disciplines, the young Rydzek inevitably found himself drawn to Nordic combined.
Things happened fast for Rydzek, who took part in his first FIS competitions at the age of 14 and made his World Cup debut two years later. After being crowned a world junior champion in Hinterzarten (GER) in January 2010, Rydzek had his first taste of Olympic success soon after, aged only 18, winning bronze with Tino Edelmann, Eric Frenzel and Björn Kircheisen in the team large hill/4x5km event at Vancouver 2010, behind winners Austria and runners-up USA.
After securing his first Summer Grand Prix title in 2010, Rydzek continued his rapid ascent at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo (NOR), collecting three silver medals: in the individual large hill/10km, where he finished just six seconds behind French legend Jason Lamy-Chappuis, and in the normal hill and large hill team competitions.
His maiden World Cup victory came in the large hill/10km in Lahti (FIN) in March 2011, a year in which he also secured a second Summer Grand Prix crown. Two more followed in 2014 and 2015, as well as third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013.
Rydzek traded up to an Olympic large hill/4x5km silver at Sochi 2014, with the German quartet he formed with Frenzel, Kircheisen and Fabian Riessle just missing out on gold in a sprint finish with Norway.
The 2014/15 season saw the German’s success continue, as he picked up medals in all four Nordic combined events at the World Championships in Falun (SWE), including two golds. Those victories came in the individual normal hill/10km, where he finished ahead of Alessando Pittin and Lamy-Chappuis, and in the team normal hill/4x5km alongside Edelmann, Frenzel and Riessle. In addition, he won bronze in the large hill/10km and silver in the team sprint with Frenzel.
After a quiet 2015/16 season, Rydzek made a spectacular return to form the following year, registering eight World Cup victories, including two at the pre-Olympic test event in PyeongChang. “I did really well on the hill and in the cross-country and I’m delighted,” he said, after his double in the Republic of Korea.
The German then achieved a remarkable grand slam at the 2017 Worlds in Lahti, winning every gold on offer: the individual normal hill and large hill events as well as the team normal hill (with Frenzel, Kircheisen and Riessle) and the sprint (with Frenzel). It was a feat no other Nordic combined athlete has ever managed, not even when there were only three events on the World Championship programme between 1999 and 2009.
Rydzek secured the sprint gold by overhauling Norway’s Magnus Krog on the very last turn. Commenting afterwards, he said: “It’s absolutely crazy. I need a few days for this to sink in.” In the World Cup that winter, he fought out a thrilling battle with Frenzel, and led in the standings until three races from the end of the season before having to settle for second place behind his compatriot.
Rydzek was in modest form in the lead-up to PyeongChang 2018, recording only one World Cup win in Ruka (FIN) on the large hill on 30 November 2017, and four top-three finishes in all, which left him fourth in the standings, well behind the winner, Japan’s Akito Watabe.
His third Olympics began with the individual normal hill, with Rydzek placing only 11th after the ski jumping, leaving him with a gap of one minute 26 seconds to close on the leaders in the 10km cross-country race. It was too much for him to make up, though he did climb up to fifth in an event won by Frenzel.
In the large hill six days later, Watabe held the lead after the ski jumping, a single second ahead of Norway’s Jarl Magnus Riiber and 16 clear of Austria’s Wilhelm Denifl. The Germans were not far adrift, however, with Frenzel 31 seconds off the pace, Rydzek 34, and Riessle 44.
Watabe and Riiber stayed out front in the opening kilometre, though it was not long before the German trio closed up. They broke clear on the final climb and in a dramatic sprint for the line, Rydzek got the better of his two compatriots, with less than a second separating the three of them. It was the first clean sweep by any nation in the Olympic history of the event.
Rydzek then skied the anchor leg in the team large hill/4x5km relay, defending the lead given to him by Vinzenz Geiger, Riessle and Frenzel with ease, as Germany won by 52 seconds over defending champions Norway. In picking up his second gold of PyeongChang 2018, Rydzek took his personal Olympic medal collection to four. “I could have blown up in the cross-country and it wouldn’t have mattered because my team-mates did such a great job. It’s a lot of fun to win together.”
Still only 26 by the end of his third Games, the young German has many more objectives to fulfil in the years ahead, with more World Cup, World Championship and Olympic glory at Beijing 2022 in his sights.
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