Athlete of the Week: Akito Watabe (JPN)

As the King of Ruka 2017, there is no way past Japan’s Akito Watabe when naming a first Athlete of the Week in the season 2017/18. The Japanese won his first individual title next to World Cup victories: he took home the inaugural Ruka Tour, a new mini-tour comprised of the first three events of the season. 

For those who have followed Watabe’s career over the years, the success for the 29-year-old is no surprise but the way Watabe came to stand on the very top of the Ruka Tour podium is certainly in sync with his career so far. Watabe can look back on ten individual World Cup victories and an Olympic silver medal so far, as well as silver and bronze medals from different FIS Nordic Ski World Championships but he is never one to win his successes the easy way, 

What he can also look back on is an astonishing array of second and fourth places speaking for the fact that Watabe has constantly been on the highest level of the Nordic Combined sport for the past few years but very often, the massive superstars like Eric Frenzel or Johannes Rydzek were one step faster, a little bit stronger or a little more dominant to take the spotlight. 

Watabe achieves his results the quiet way. He’s never one to show extreme emotions, frustration or dissatisfaction and has a fascinating ability to bounce back from almost soul-shattering losses like at the Nordic Combined TRIPLE in 2015/16, when Eric Frenzel snatched the victory from him against all odds. What characterises the 29-year-old is an astonishing inner calm and mindfulness towards himself, his surroundings and fellow athletes, making him into one of the most well-liked persons in the Nordic Combined family. 

But as usual, Watabe’s success on the past weekend did not come easy. First in the chain of events, he fell in a training accident on the cross-country track a few days before the World Cup Opening and hit a hidden ice block on the side of the track with his chest, leading to a painful bruise. Battling through constant pain during the cross-country races and in the bone-jarring landings on the jumping hill, Watabe still managed to get the results: a third place on Friday, the victory on Saturday and a place in the leading group of the race on Sunday. 

But again, fate had other plans for the Japanese. Instead of an easy end to the race, he was caught in a crash of Jørgen Graabak, who was skiing before him, took a hard tumble, lost his ski in the process and had to scramble and get it back and attached again and finish the competition. 

Everything seemed lost….again. Starting into the race with a point difference of 24 points between the Watabe and his closest pursuer, Espen Andersen, the Norwegian scored 40 points with his sixth-place performance. Watabe received 24 when he finally reached the finish as eleventh. In the final score it meant a Ruka Tour win by eight points for Watabe. In the typical calm but humorous Watabe-manner, he commented the incident with “Well, drama is good for the sport, so this was probably the best way to do it” in the finish.  

If it was fate, the Goddess of Luck who finally smiled on the Japanese or just good Karma, we cannot say but what is for certain is that this success couldn’t be more well-deserved for our Athlete of the Week.