It was a total team effort on Tuesday for Germany in the second nordic-combined individual event of the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, with Fabian Rießle, Johannes Rydzek and Eric Frenzel, with the help of Austria’s Wilhelm Denifl, chasing down Japan’s Akito Watabe and Norway’s Jarl Magnus Riiber about 6 kilometers into the 10 k race.
Earlier on Tuesday, Watabe had put himself in first with the best-ranked jump on PyeongChang’s 142-meter large hill. He started the 10 k Gundersen in first, just 1 second ahead of Riiber, who had jumped to second, just 0.3 points behind Watabe.
(Riiber had actually jumped farther with a distance of 139 meters, compared to Watabe’s 134-meter jump, and scored identical marks from the judges but lost points for wind compensation.)
Behind them, Denifl started the 10 k race 16 seconds out of first, Frenzel surged out of the start 24 seconds back, Rydzek 31 seconds behind, and Rießle 34 seconds back.
While Watabe led Riiber off the front for the first two laps of the four-lap race, the three Germans caught Denifl before lapping through the stadium for the first time at 2.5 k. From there, 16 seconds behind the leaders, the four-man group worked to reel in first and second place and did so by 6 k.
The lead pack then became six as Riiber and Watabe continued to position themselves up front at the 7.5 k mark.
On the final lap at the 8.58 k marker, Watabe charged to the front in his move to reclaim first. After taking the lead on an uphill, it wasn’t long after until he found himself skiing with three others alongside him: Riiber, Rydzek and Frenzel.
Then, Watabe slipped behind Riiber and the group closed in around him. Watabe clipped a ski, apparently with Rießle, who didn’t stumble, but Watabe did and dropped to the back of the pack. For Watabe, that was the end. For Germany, it was the beginning.
Frenzel led the charge up the final climb with Rydzek and Rießle behind him while Riiber tried to keep pace. Riiber slotted into fourth over the top and the foursome flew down into the stadium, with Rydzek coming out of the draft in first and leading Rießle, Frenzel and Riiber to the finish, respectively.
They finished in that order, with Rydzek taking gold in 23:52.5 minutes, 0.4 seconds ahead of Rießle in second place and 0.8 seconds ahead of Frenzel in third. Riiber crossed 2.8 seconds back in fourth, and Watabe ended up fifth (+12.5).
Germany had four in the top seven with Vinzenz Geiger in seventh (+50.1), behind Finland’s Eero Hirvonen in sixth (+22.1).
“I looked up to the video wall and saw the first three: all Germans,” Geiger recalled in a post-race interview with German broadcaster ARD. “That made me really happy, and of course I can also be happy about my seventh place.”
Frenzel had previously taken gold and Watabe silver in the first nordic-combined event of the 2018 Olympics, the normal hill/10 k on Feb. 14. Riiber was fourth for the second-straight competition.
American Bryan Fletcher repeated his result from the normal-hill competition as well, placing 17th on Tuesday, 1:42.9 minutes behind Rydzek in first. Fletcher had started the 10 k 2:04 minutes back in 23rd based on his jump. His teammate Ben Berend started 8 seconds behind him in 24th. Ultimately, Fletcher raced up to 17th with the 10th-fastest course time while Berend slipped to 39th (+4:28.2).
“The second I was in the air I knew I had a good one,” Berend told FasterSkier after the jumping portion of Tuesday’s competition. “Because when you do it right, you’re just flying, and I was really high and I was pulling away towards the bottom of the hill and so I knew, but I couldn’t feel any wind or anything. I was just so psyched, trying to enjoy every second of it.
“I haven’t had that many good jumps this season so I’ve just been searching for that,” Berend explained. “It’s funny, it’s so easy when you are doing it right and it’s so hard when you’re lost, and so I finally felt like, that might have been my best jump of the season, honestly, so what are the odds of doing that at the Olympics? That’s pretty cool.”
Tuesday was the 22 year old’s first Olympic competition after he sat out the first individual event because his jumping had been going poorly in training, he said. (Each team can only start four athletes per event. Taylor Fletcher sat out Tuesdsay’s competition.)
“I definitely was a little nervous for tonight, even though there is no pressure on me,” Berend said. “… Our coach [three-time U.S. Olympic biathlete Jeremy Teela] texted us, he’s actually our cross-county coach, he’s back at home, and he just said, ‘You guys have nothing to lose. Don’t be scared to fail.’ So that’s kind of our mindset here, and it was good; it kind of works for me.”
After the race, Bryan Fletcher, who had skied up to 13th by 7.5 k, recalled pulling a chase group for most of the four laps. He ended up 17th, 3.2 seconds shy of 16th place, behind Japan’s Go Yamamoto.
“I went all in and just tried to make up as much ground as possible,” Fletcher told FasterSkier after. “I was hopeful and optimistic that I’d have the legs at the end. I knew that they were going to come around me with a pretty hard attack, and both of the guys that were with me have great finishing sprints, so I tried to pace myself a little bit, but I also knew that 17th or 10th or whatever you could get up to, it doesn’t really matter unless you’re on the podium so I was really going all in. … Unfortunately it didn’t work out, but I’m happy with how I skied and happy with the performance I had on the course today.”
Just behind Berend, his teammate Ben Loomis finished 40th (+4:38.8), up from 43rd in the jump, and Jasper Good followed in 43rd (+5:50.2), up from 46th.
“It was kind of tough jumping … [and] hard to start the race at the back, but overall it was a good race by me and I felt pretty good out there,” Loomis said after. “Regardless of how I have and how I continue to do here, there’s a lot to take away and I’m learning a lot about how to better refine my preparations and just stay relaxed out there and just really put my best foot forward.”
Nordic combined at the 2018 Games will conclude with the 4 x 5 k team event on Thursday.
— Jason Albert and Harald Zimmer contributed