People looking for the last Japanese champion of Nordic Combined have for some years now been going back to the mid-1990ies, to the golden era of Kenji Ogiwara and his Olympic and World Championship wins. Slowly but surely, they don't have to look in the past anymore. Under the careful tutelage of head coach Takanori Kohno, a new star on the Nordic Combined heaven has been rising for some time now and he's there to stay: Akito Watabe.
Being named one of the unluckiest athletes of the last season when big wins or podiums at the World Championships eluded him, Watabe has come into his own and with his open, friendly and funny character, has attracted fans and media alike.
After setting an exclamation mark by winning the Summer Grand Prix jointly with Austrian Berni Gruber and finally climbing on the very top of the podium, the 25-year-old has started to collect podium positions also this season. Starting off seventh in Kuusamo, the first 4-athlete-team podium for a Japanese team followed, as well as a second and a third rank in Lillehammer. Not a bad start into the season for the Japanese team leader who can still joke about the elusive win at the press conference after the race on Saturday: "I am happy and satisfied about today but I am still in the second-place syndrome!"
And as of this season, a different Akito Watabe can also come out to play. Experts and spectators alike were impressed when Watabe bounced back from a slow first round in Sunday's Individual Gundersen race on the difficult track in the new Birkebeineren stadium in Lillehammer and gave Magnus Krog a run for his money and the second place, almost catching up with the Norwegian before the finish line.
In his typical humble and humorous manner, Watabe commented on journalists taking pictures of local hero Kokslien and Jason Lamy Chappuis afterwards: "They are big heroes. I am not!" With more races like the ones so far, Akito, we beg to differ!