German juggernaut sweeps historic large hill podium
Japan’s Akito Watabe had seen this nightmare before. Germany’s Eric Frenzel edged him out for gold in Sochi and in the PyeongChang normal hill event a week ago.
On Tuesday, he was seeing triple.
In an entirely new level of torment, Watabe watched as the Germans swept the Nordic combined large hill/10 km event with Johannes Rydzek taking the gold, flanked by Fabian Reissle in silver and Eric Frenzel taking the bronze.
Watabe, the leader coming into the cross-country portion, led throughout. And then came the final climb.
With a kilometer to go, Watabe slipped, dropping him to the back of the seven-man lead pack and out of medal contention.
From the back of the pack, he had a perfect view as the German juggernauts charged their way to the podium.
Rydzek, the reigning world champion, edged Riessle for gold by .4 seconds, coming in at 23 minutes, 52.5 seconds. Frenzel, the two-time normal hill gold medalist finished .8 seconds back.
"I knew I had the opportunity to win but I knew also these five guys in the group could also win, so I have to put all my heart and all my power into the last climb and then also the last metres and just when I went across the finish line, I really believed I won," Rydzek said.
Rydzek's win represented Germany's first gold medal in the event, while it was the first medal sweep ever in the individual large hill/10km.
"Amazing," Rydzek said of winning his first gold medal. "I don't know what to say, it's unreal. It was an incredible race, it was Nordic combined at its best. Such a tough fight with five guys in the leading group, all could catch the medals."
Frenzel led the Germans to start the race, beginning 24 seconds after Watabe, followed by Rydzek 31 seconds after the leader and Riessle three seconds later.
The German trio, starting 4-5-6 worked together to hunt down Watabe. But in the end, only one could win the gold.
"It was, I think, really good teamwork to get there," Frenzel said. "It was not so easy to close the gap to the front guys (at the start of the race) but we made it really good and at the end we had enough power for a good sprint at the end, so it was amazing for us."
From there, the onslaught was on. By the end of the first lap, Watabe’s lead had been cut to 16.6 seconds over Rydzek. It was halved again at the midpoint of the race. And by the 7.5km mark, it was dead even.
Watabe salvaged a fifth-place finish, crossing the finish line at 24:05.0 -- 12.5 seconds behind Rydzek.
For once in PyeongChang, it wasn’t all about Norway.
Norway, who leads all nations with 29 medals in PyeongChang – including 11 cross-country and three ski jumping medals – faltered in the ski jumping portion of the Nordic combined large hill/10 kilometer event Tuesday.
Jorgen Graabak, the reigning gold medalist in the event, greatly underperformed with a 119.5-meter jump for 110.0 points. Countryman Jan Schmid, the second-ranked Nordic combined athlete in the world also failed to meet expectations, finishing the ski jumping bit at 107.9 points. Graabak and Schmid started the medal-deciding 10km cross-country race one minute, 52 seconds and 2:04, respectively, behind leader Akito Watabe of Japan. Overall, Graabak and Schmid finished 15th and 16th, respectively.
"I felt a bit like a tourist back there watching the guys competing for a medal," Graabak said. "So, of course, that's really boring and disappointing in an Olympic event. That's not why I'm here."
Watabe, the silver medalist in the normal hill event, nailed a 134.0-meter jump (the fourth farthest of the competition) as the final jumper. He made up for the lacking distance with a polished style score (three 18.5 scores from the judges) for a near-perfect landing.
It wasn’t all negative for Norway, though. Jarl Magnus Riiber represented the nation’s only true shot at a medal, finishing fourth – as he did in the normal hill – just two seconds behind Frenzel for the bronze.
"Fourth twice, it's so hard and now I'm quite disappointed because it was even closer this time than last time," Riiber said. "More chances will come next Olympics, though."
In the opening ski jumping porttion, Riiber finished in the two-hole, just .30 points behind Watabe’s 138.9, giving Watabe the one second head start over Riiber in the cross-country race.
Bryan Fletcher, a childhood cancer survivor appearing in his second Olympics, led the U.S. with a 120.5-meter jump worth 107.8 points. It wasn’t enough to put him in medal contention, though, as he began the cross-country portion 2:04 back before finishing 17th, 1:42.9 back of Rydzek.
Three other Americans competed: Ben Berend (39th place), Ben Loomis (40th) and Jasper Good (43rd).
Nordic combined wraps up with the team event Thursday at 2:30 a.m. ET. It won't be a surprise to see the Germans atop the podium again.
"We have such a strong team and we all knew that if we show our best performance we are all good for the podium or for the win," Rydzek said. "I think for our sport in Germany, Nordic combined, it was such a huge thing to get all the medals. I'm so happy I'm in this team and it's so much fun to compete and train with them."
"We know we have to focus on our performance, do our jumps, do our race and if we manage that it will be hard to defeat us," Rydzek said of the upcoming event.
You bet it'll be hard to beat the Germans. Just ask Watabe.