Run Akito run: It's gold or bust for Watabe in fifth Olympic Winter Games

Now a proud dad, two-time silver medallist going all in for Beijing 2022 in what he feels is his best chance yet to dethrone Germans.

By Shintaro Kano
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Watabe Akito is eyeing his fifth Olympic Winter Games at Beijing 2022. That’s f-i-v-e.

And the 33-year-old, two-time Nordic combined silver medallist likes his chances more than ever of finally topping the Olympic podium.

“Technically, I’m the best I’ve ever been”, Watabe told Japanese media in a virtual press conference ahead of the World Cup season kicking off on Friday (26 November).

“All that’s on my mind right now is wanting to produce the best jump and run of my entire career so I can win a gold medal.

“No matter how many times I go to the Games, it’s never comfortable. It always feels like the first time.

“Without question, I want to win a gold medal this time more than ever”.

Climbing the peak

Watabe made his Games debut at Turin 2006 while he was still in high school at Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, one of Japan’s skiing hotbeds.

After further seasoning at Vancouver 2010, Watabe won his first Olympic medal four years later in Sochi in the normal hill/10 kilometres.

He went into PyeongChang 2018 with confidence after rattling off four successive wins leading up to the Games but the Germans - namely Eric Frenzel - stood tall before him.

After settling for silver in the normal hill to Frenzel, Watabe felt just a good race wouldn’t be good enough, that he had to take the fight to him.

Going into the 10km with a one-second lead, Watabe rolled the dice to set a breakneck pace, hoping to fry the German trio of Frenzel, Johannes Rydzek and Fabian Riessle.

But in the end it was Watabe who faded. He placed fifth while Frenzel, Rydzek and Riessle swept the board.

Watabe - who at times can be Zen-like with his choice of words - likens the elusive gold to climbing a mountain that he’s accustomed to flying off of.

“It feels like a mountain to me. Lately, that’s the way I see it. There is a mountain I haven’t been able to climb and I want to conquer it”.

Watabe Akito
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Father figure

Watabe became a father in November 2020, when he and his wife, former freestyle skier and Olympian Yurie, had a son.

Watabe said being a parent has made him realise there is more to life than skiing.

“We have a new member of the family”, said Watabe, whose younger brother Yoshito is also a Nordic combined skier.

“It doesn’t change Watabe Akito the skier but it was massive to me as a person. From hereon, I want to think about my time with the family.

“I don’t know if I’ll try for the Olympics after this but it will be different for sure - and I’m not talking about retirement.

“This will be the last time I use up 100 per cent of my time to try to win a gold medal. I’m going into these Games with a sense of determination I haven’t had before”.

Watabe Akito
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Watabe has also taken inspiration from his young compatriots who competed in the Games’ new sports at Tokyo 2020.

“I could tell they love what they do. Before they became professional athletes, they rode, surfed, climbed for the love of the sport.

“It reminded me of how I once felt about skiing at my first Games”.

For all that he has achieved and as someone who is looking at a fifth trip to the Games, taking only a backseat to Kasai Noriaki (nine Olympic appearances), Watabe feels he doesn’t quite command the respect he deserves.

And he believes it’s because he has never slung gold around his neck, which fires up Watabe even more in his chase for the summit.

“At the Olympics, the one who wins is recognised as the best. At the World Cup, the best almost always comes out ahead at the end of the season”, he said.

“What it comes down to is that I have to win gold at the Games”.

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