“When I started backcountry skiing, I began to recognize this energy, like the flow of nature, that human has no power to control. And that is when I finally felt like I had been liberated from something.”
Akito Watabe, Goldwin’s athlete, is a world-class skier in cross-country and Nordic combined tournaments. He has competed in the Olympics five times and achieved remarkable results by winning three medals consecutively. And still, Watabe continues to challenge his own limits.
This true athlete was born and raised in one of Japan's best snow towns called Hakuba and began competing in Nordic ski competitions while he was only in elementary school. His extraordinary talent began to flourish during middle school, and by the time he was in high school, he was already competing in the Turin Olympics.
Despite of his remarkable career, Watabe tells us that he is not comfortable being called an “athlete.”
“I think of ‘athletes’ as people who prioritize results before anything. Athletes are those who achieve results regardless of the type of sports. I, on the other hand, want to get good results as a skier."
We interviewed Watabe on the future he envisions, about his goals as a skier rather than an athlete.
Change in Mentality
“When I was little, yet to start competing, skiing was just fun. And I used to look at mountains and think they’re beautiful.”
For the past few years, it has become customary for Watabe to visit home in Hakuba for a vacation during the off-season in spring. This is to enjoy backcountry skiing with heel-free skis such as BC cross-country skis and telemark skis. Unlike conventional skiing at a ski resort, backcountry skiing involves climbing wild mountains and skiing freely over vast terrain. However, since it deals with an area that is not managed by the ski resort, one will be self-responsible for all decisions, actions, and safety while in the mountain.
Skiing and tuning to the mountains of Hakuba is a time for Watabe to reset and reawaken his genuine “joy of skiing,” and re-recognize the beauty of surrounding scenery where he was born and raised. He believes that skiing in the mountains has changed his mentality as ‘an athlete.’
“When I had a mindset of an athlete, my vision was extremely narrow that I can barely remember the view. Those are times when you think you can control everything. Even though nothing can control the flow of nature, the mind thinks even the result can be controlled by putting in the effort. I finally felt like I had been liberated when I began to realize such invincible energy of nature through backcountry skiing.”
What Watabe refers to being “liberated” is the pressure he’s been putting on himself. To challenge and push limits as an athlete, you must always concentrate on the competition and continue to produce results. For athletes who aim high, having a place where they can regain their sense of self may be the most comforting thing of all. For Watabe, the backcountry of Hakuba is one of those places.
Knowing When to Leave
Many media outlets are reporting that Akito Watabe will end his competitive career at Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo 2026 Winter Olympics. For Watabe who calls himself a skier rather than an athlete, how does he envision when to withdraw from competitive skiing.
“I’ve thought many times that I could retire anytime. But I now think that I’d be the happiest if I push myself ‘till the end and quit at the point where I can no longer bloom again. One of my options was to quit at the peak of my career, but wouldn’t it be just like leaving the scene when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom? Then it seemed to me that I would be missing the opportunity to enjoy this to the fullest.
Cherry blossoms falling with the wind are beautiful, then we continue to look at flowerless tree just to remember how it was in full bloom. I feel like that’s when we truly observe the beauty of a tree in its entirely... ”
“Another thing would be to pass it on properly. I think it would be great if I could retire in a way that I hand over what I've established up until now to a new generation of athletes. It would be my ideal if those younger folks could ski in a fashion that would make them enjoy skiing even more.”
Watabe, who has been inspiring people by competing in the world of Nordic skiing for many years, will once again challenge his limits in his latter stage of his competitive career, with a brand-new mindset of skier he did not have before.
The expectation is high for the future achievements of skier Akito Watabe and to see how he fulfills the rest of his competitive career.
Seeing him draw big spurts in Hakuba’s backcountry is another thing to look forward to. But the only thing that is for sure at this point is that the mountains of Hakuba will always be there.
Akito Watabe is a Japanese professional skier, who has competed in the Olympics five times and achieved remarkable results by winning three medals consecutively. Born in 1988 and raised in Hakuba, Watabe began competing in Nordic ski competitions when he was in 4th grade, moving up to compete in the Turin ’06 Olympics while in was in high school. He is currently competing in World Cup series in preparation for 2025-26 season and Milan 2026 Winter Olympics.