Mixing ski jumping with cross country skiing, Nordic combined has gone in search of the ultimate winter athlete since the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924. And in this epic quest to blend explosive strength with endurance and tactical nous, Japanese star Akito Watabe is hoping Zen meditation will provide him with the balance required to win gold in PyeongChang.
“It’s just always so dramatic,” says Akito Watabe when asked what is so special about his sport. “We’re all competing at the same time and chasing each other (in the winner-takes-all cross country race) and our weaknesses make it even more exciting, because we have to do two very different events.”
Nordic combined at PyeongChang 2018 comprises two men’s individual Gundersen events – one combining ski jumping from the normal hill (109m) with a lung-busting 10km cross country race, the other jumping from the large hill (140m) then the same distance on the track – and the team Gundersen featuring four-man teams, with each member jumping from the large hill then taking part in a 4x5km relay. There are no women’s events, but it is hoped they will be added for Beijing 2022.
I use Zen to keep my mind calm. I meditate when I need it, like before leaving the hotel for competition. It allows me to accept everything. What has happened and what will happen.Akito Watabe
Under the “Gundersen method”, created by the wonderfully named Gunder Gundersen, athletes jump once each before starting the cross country race later the same day, staggered according to their jumping points. The best jumper starts first and is pursued by his rivals whose delayed starts are calculated by adding four seconds for each point they trail the leader in the individual events, 1.33 seconds per point in the relay. First to the finish line takes gold.
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“You must keep a balance between your jumping and cross country,” says Watabe, the Sochi 2014 individual normal hill silver medallist. “For jumping you must keep your mind calm and focused. Your speed during the in-run is about 90 kilometres per hour and you have to maintain control in the air to land safely.
“I use Zen to keep my mind calm. I meditate when I need it, like before leaving the hotel for competition. It allows me to accept everything. What has happened and what will happen. It allows me let go and focus on what I have to do.”
Asked how he feels at the top of the ski jump, Watabe is disarmingly honest. “Scared,” he says. Even now? “Yes, every jump. I can imagine crashing and can picture many bad images. It’s a battle with my mind. I just start, just push away from the bar and then I must jump.”
This is ski jumping’s equivalent of a par score in golf – it is the average distance in metres jumpers are expected to reach. In PyeongChang the normal hill is K-98 while the large hill is K-125. “It’s quite big as the average is 90km for normal hill and 120 for large hill,” says Watabe. “The profile is quite similar to the jumping hill in my home town, Hakuba, so it is comfortable for me.”
Jumpers get 60 points for hitting the K-point and gain points for each metre they go past it or lose points for each metre they fall short of it. On the normal hill they gain or lose two points per metre, while on the large hill it is 1.8 points.
The jumpers are also graded for technique and style by judges who analyse flight, landing and out-run. “I am quite light compared to European athletes and this is good for jumping, it means I can get a good position in the air,” says Watabe
“It has to be the Telemark landing,” he adds, in reference to the style named after the Norwegian county. This involves landing one foot in front of the other with the skies parallel and not more than the width of two skis apart.
Five judges award up to 20 points each, with the highest and lowest scores removed and the remaining three scores added together.
The PyeongChang course is 2.5km long, the first third being uphill, the middle section being level and the last third downhill. Athletes complete four laps in the individual events and two laps each in the relay. And Watabe fancies his chances.
“It’s a really tough track with a hard, steep uphill part which is good for me because I am strong at climbs, but not so strong on flats or downhill. I am small and light so I can ski fast uphill. My cross country time is always quite fast on tracks where there is a hard climb.
“But you have to be really smart, not just go off at full speed. You must see who is chasing you and understand the time between the leading and chasing groups, and know when to break away from the pack. You have to control everything.”