Rikako Ikee leading Japan’s swimming charge toward 2020 Tokyo Olympics

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With the Summer Olympics coming to Japan in two years’ time, some athletes are close to being ready for it and some still need a little more time to get into top shape.

The Japan Swimming Championships, which wrapped up on Sunday, identified some of those cases.

Rikako Ikee is Japan’s most rapidly improving swimmer and is unquestionably enjoying a moment right now. The 17-year-old had broken six national records, including short-course competitions, this year alone heading into the national championships.

And she ended up setting national records six times again, winning all the four disciplines she competed in at nationals (50-meter and 100-meter freestyle and 50 and 100 butterfly).

Ikee broke new ground by competing in seven disciplines, including relays, at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics as a high school freshman two years ago. But the five-time world junior championships gold medalist is now becoming a world-class athlete, thanks to the strength and high-altitude training she has undertaken.

“I swam naturally and relaxed, yet was still able to go faster,” Ikee said after Tuesday’s 100 butterfly semifinals at Tokyo’s Tatsumi International Swimming Center (She had a 56.58-second mark for a national record before the final).

Her 56.38-second time in the 100 butterfly final, which ranks No. 1 in the world this year, would have been enough to win her the silver medal at the Rio Games.

But Ikee does not jump for joy after breaking national records any more.

Being able to compete on par with the world’s elite swimmers and being recognized as one of the best is her ultimate objective. She has world records in her sights as well.

Of course, the Tokyo Olympics are the biggest goal for her in the near future.

Ikee is full of confidence and motivation right now, which comes from her substantial training. People often compare athletes to how they performed at the previous Olympics, but that is almost meaningless for the fast-growing, up-and-coming Ikee, who finished fifth in the 100 butterfly in Brazil.

“It’s been almost two years,” the Tokyo native said of the Rio Olympics, after her 100 butterfly semifinal on the first day of the tournament. “I absolutely have confidence that I’ve grown since then. I’ve progressed smoothly so far, so I would like to keep it up until the Tokyo Olympics.”

Breaststroke swimmer Yasuhiro Koseki, meanwhile, successfully completed a perfect week in the pool.

The 26-year-old achieved a three-for-three performance at nationals last year, too. But he said that “the value of it and the delight was completely different.”

He hit the water with extraordinary determination to make it happen.

Koseki had an altercation, where he hit a younger swimmer at a national team training camp in Spain in January (the two later came to a settlement), and refrained from competing at tournaments through the end of March.

“I’m glad to have given everything I had to achieve the triple title,” Koseki said of his win in the men’s 200, which was his last discipline of the tournament, on Saturday.

In the 200 race, the Yamagata Prefecture native allowed younger rival and world record-holder Ippei Watanabe a narrow lead at the 150-meter mark, but out-swam him at the end for the win.

“I competed carrying mixed emotions,” Koseki said after the 200 race. “I was determined that I would quit competing if I lost. I didn’t want to use (the time not competing) as an excuse, and didn’t want to lose.”

But like Ikee, Koseki is looking at the world’s best. His winning mark of 2:08.45 was far off Watanabe’s world record, almost by two seconds.

Koseki said that he felt good about his performance in the 50 competition, in which he improved his own national record to 27.12. But he could not find his best mechanics in his other races.

Yet he took it positively, saying that it is “helpful” to objectively acknowledge his own issues.

Star swimmer Kosuke Hagino also had to endure a tough six-day tournament, which he said gave him a valuable lesson.

On the first day, he finished as runner-up behind Naito Ehara in the 400 freestyle final. Hagino was perplexed with the result, because he thought he was doing just fine technically.

Yet the cause was obvious. The four-time Olympic medalist had not been able to practice enough due to illness and lower back pain over the winter.

Hagino applied a drastic remedy during the national championships, which also served as the trials for this summer’s Pan Pacific Championships and Asian Games. He withdrew from the 200 freestyle race to give himself time to regroup.

It worked, if not perfectly. Hagino wound up winning the 200 and 400 individual medley relays to secure spots on the national squad for the Pan Pacific and Asian Games.

“I had to withdraw from one of the disciplines, which was my first time at the national championships,” the 23-year-old Hagino said after his final race in the 400 individual medley on Sunday. “But I was able to put myself back in place, and it makes me feel it helped me grow through this tournament.”