Nordic combined’s Fabian Riessle is a whirr of power and precision on cross-country skis. Everything seems to work in the most efficient, effective manner possible. As befits a man who is routinely hailed for his unendingly amiable nature, the German is quick to point out that it is lucky he is so proficient in one aspect of his sport.
“I am a guy who always has to race very fast because my jumping is always not good,” Riessle said, laughing loudly. “I had to learn from childhood that I always have to give everything in every single race, from the first metres.”
The 30-year-old is clearly doing his ski jumping – the first component of the Nordic combined – a disservice. Compared to mere mortals, he soars like a snow eagle through the air. But it is fair to say he does not quite compare to the best jumpers in his discipline.
“When I am two-and-a-half minutes back after the ski jumping part, I have it in my brain I still want to win,” he said, before revealing that he has overcome some enormous deficits – in excess of a-minute-and-a-half – and gone on to win. “I think that is my biggest strength.”
From the moment he first burst on to the global scene, his cross-country skiing prowess has certainly been on show. Back at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, Riessle was a wide-eyed 23-year-old, a youngster in an emerging German men’s team. But after placing ninth in the ski jumping on the large hill in the individual event, he shocked his opponents and the watching world by slickly sliding through the field in the 10km cross-country to snatch the bronze medal.
The fact that he was involved in a final-corner crash with two of his team-mates only added to the drama.
“It was a pretty shocking moment – maybe we could have hit the podium sweep, but we only won the bronze medal,” Riessle said of the crash that resulted in his compatriots Bjoern Kircheisen and Johannes Rydzek finishing in fourth and eighth place respectively, leaving the two Norwegians Joergen Graabak and Magnus Hovdal Moan to take gold and silver.
“That was a sad story,” the German added. “But I also think it was necessary to bring us together as a team. It was sad but a step in the right direction to move forward.”
The German squad has not looked back since. Team-mate Eric Frenzel had already taken gold at Sochi 2014 on the normal hill before teaming up with Riessle, Rydzek and Kircheisen to win team silver. Four years later, in PyeongChang, Vinzenz Geiger had replaced Kircheisen as Germany took all three available gold medals in the discipline. Frenzel powered to a second gold on the normal hill, with Rydzek leading Riessle and Frenzel in a one-two-three on the large hill, before the quartet dominated the opposition in the team event.
In short, Germany have now won four of the last six Nordic combined Olympic golds on offer, claiming an additional four medals in the process.
“It’s a big honour to compete with the other German guys; we are a pretty strong team,” Riessle said modestly. He alone has a gold, two silvers and a bronze to show for his two Olympic experiences so far.
It is when you hear the three-time world champion describe the experience of the last lap in the individual large hill race in PyeongChang that you get an idea of just what it takes to achieve such success.
“It’s a mix of everything. Your legs hurt a lot, your brain is working pretty hard also, you think about the last uphill, the last downhill and then the way to the finish line,” he said. “And you have to look where the other guys are. It’s everything.”
But, as Riessle is happy to confirm, all that pain is “gone in seconds” when you and your two team-mates finish with gold-silver-bronze.
“It was awesome. We knew after the jumping part that it was really possible that we could do it; take the first three places on the podium. Then, when we started the race, our tactic was that we mix it a bit; everyone had to lead – we could separate the work. It worked pretty good,” Riessle said, unable or perhaps unwilling to keep the smile out of his voice.
“Our plan was to start and be as fast as we could together, sharing the lead, and then we said, ‘OK, in the last lap everyone looks for what is best for themselves’. Everyone could do what they liked.
“It was a big moment. I think it brought us three together more.”
Like many successful outfits, the three of them bring very different characteristics to the start line. Frenzel is a relaxed, family-oriented man who, according to Riessle, has an uncanny ability to always know exactly what his body and mind need. In comparison, Rydzek simply never stops. The 29-year-old is “someone who can run and run and not feel pain”, making him a pretty useful wingman.
As for Riessle, the man himself is too modest to dwell for very long on his particular talents, but there is no doubting his extraordinary engine and unquenchable desire to be the best. Married to a cross-country skier and eying up a post-sport career guiding tourists around his native Black Forest, Riessle never stops pushing himself. It has long been that way.
“I always had to bicycle to school; maybe that is a little of the secret,” he laughed. “From six to 10 years [old] it was 3km one way, and when I was a little bit older it was 10km to school.”
Next stop, the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 and a first individual gold medal. It would be a fitting bookend for a classy, popular athlete.