Kaneto, Ikee offer stark contrasts in pursuit of Rio glory

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Comeback queen Rie Kaneto is gearing up for an assault on the 200-meter breaststroke world record at this summer’s Rio Olympics, but admits she could just as easily have been watching the race on TV instead.

Kaneto qualified for the 200 breast in Rio with an extraordinary performance at last week’s national championships in Tokyo, clocking 2 minutes, 19.65 seconds in the final to finish just 0.54 seconds off the world record held by Denmark’s Rikke Moller Pedersen.

Kaneto almost quit swimming several times over the past few years after failing to live up to the early promise that saw her compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a teenager.

But after breaking the national record last weekend for the second time this year, the 27-year-old is building up a head of steam that she hopes will take her all the way in Brazil.

“Personally I haven’t set my target time for Rio so I can’t say too much yet,” Kaneto told reporters at the National Training Center on Thursday. “As things stand right now, I’m about 30-40 percent confident that I can do it.

“From now on I need to identify what I have to work on, and then if I can get a clear target I think I’ll have more confidence that I can break the world record.

“After the athletes get their medals, they go on a victory lap. That’s the thing that I’m always jealous of. I’d love to do that and hug everyone. I’d love to share my happiest moment with my parents and coach.”

Kaneto missed out on a place at the London Olympics four years ago and saw her results dwindle to the point where she repeatedly thought about giving up swimming altogether.

But the Hiroshima Prefecture native overcame the doubts to set a new national record of 2 minutes, 20.04 seconds in Perth, Australia, in February, and she admits the fear of leaving on a down note spurred her on.

“At the end of every year from 2012 I thought ‘I want to quit,’ ” she said. “I wanted to quit but I couldn’t. The feeling that I could break the national record only started to take hold about half a year ago.

“I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to last year and I wanted to quit (after finishing sixth in the 200 breast at the world championships). But after thinking about it, I realized that I didn’t want all the people who had supported me to remember my last race as being a pathetic one.”

While Kaneto will surely be competing at her final Olympics, however, 15-year-old phenom Rikako Ikee is preparing for her first.

Ikee became an overnight star when she booked a spot in four events in Rio through her performances at the national championships, and stole the public’s hearts by breaking down in tears during a TV interview after winning the 100-meter butterfly.

“When I saw that again on TV I was surprised at how much I was crying,” said the first-year high school student, who will compete in the 100-meter butterfly, 4×100-meter freestyle relay, 4×200 freestyle relay and 4×100 medley relay in Rio.

“If you set your targets too high, you run the risk of putting too much pressure on yourself. So I want to achieve my minimum goals and then take it from there. It will be difficult in the individual event, but I want to at least get to the semifinals.”

Ikee updated her own 100-meter butterfly national record to 57.55 seconds in the semifinals at last week’s nationals, and she believes she can still get faster before boarding the plane to Rio.

“We have a lot of training camps coming up and I will have to concentrate on my preparation a lot more,” she said. “I think I am capable of improving my speed and my overall swimming in that time. I don’t know how much I can achieve but I think I can get better.

“I just try to have an image in my mind and stick to it and not let anything distract me. If the swimmers around you are going fast, then it can throw you off but I try as much as possible to ignore it.”

Ikee’s cool head at the national championships was remarkable given her tender years, but the teenager is just as relaxed out of the pool as in it.

“I don’t get nervous doing interviews,” she said. “I just talk as I do normally. I haven’t had any training.”