Rikako Ikee was determined to eventually return to her peak form.
She just didn’t expect things to progress this quickly.
The 20-year-old swimming star, who is recovering from leukemia, punched her ticket to the Tokyo Olympics — something once thought impossible — by winning the women’s 100-meter butterfly final at the national championships on Sunday.
Ikee touched the wall in 57.77 seconds, which failed to meet the standard for qualification for the individual event at the Tokyo Games, but was lower than the time of 57.92 needed to qualify for the women’s medley relay.
The top two finishers in each event who meet Olympic qualification marks at the trials automatically clinch berths for the Tokyo Games.
“I didn’t have words to describe how I felt and I was extremely happy,” an emotional Ikee said after the race at the brand-new Tokyo Aquatics Center, which will host swimming during the Summer Games. “I recalled all the tough times I went through, but I was thrilled to be able to come back here.”
Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2019. After undergoing treatment for the disease and then rehab, she returned to competition at a Tokyo meet in August and has made remarkable progress.
When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed for a year in March 2020, Ikee downplayed thoughts she could possibly compete, publicly stating her goal was to aim for the 2024 Paris Games.
“I didn’t think I would be able to win the 100 (butterfly) and didn’t have as much confidence as I did at the Olympic trials five years ago,” said Ikee, who competed in seven disciplines during the 2016 Rio Olympics. “I didn’t think I would have a time under 58 seconds and I didn’t think I would come up with a time that would qualify me for the relay. I thought I would start winning again much later.”
Regardless of the goals she set publicly, Ikee, who captured six gold medals and was named MVP at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, gave her all in training.
“I’ve practiced to win,” said Ikee, who has lost as much as 18 kilograms during her treatment for leukemia. “And I was like, ‘I’m home’ when I made my entrance before the race. I learned that even if you don’t have enough confidence, your hard work will still pay off for you.”
During the race, Ikee said she didn’t pay attention to her rivals until around the “final 25 to 15 meters” and noticed Suzuka Hasegawa, the eventual runner-up, was catching up. Stamina has been one of Ikee’s major concerns during her comeback and she was worried she would not be able to maintain her lead.
“But when I touched the wall, I saw I was ahead of her by 0.3 seconds or so (the official gap was 0.41 seconds) and I was a little surprised I didn’t allow her to get as close to me as I thought she would,” said Ikee, whose personal best in the 100 butterfly is 56.08, which is also the national record.
While it’s easy to describe Ikee as an exceptional talent, national team head coach Norimasa Hirai also called her “a genius to come through” when things mattered most.
“I believe the effort she’s put in has paid off,” Hirai told reporters. “Her concentration and ability to give everything she’s got has not declined and has not gotten rusty at all. I was very surprised.”
The 100 butterfly was the first of four disciplines Ikee registered for at the national championships. She still has the women’s 50 and 100 freestyle and 50 butterfly remaining at the event, which ends Saturday.
Ikee revealed that she felt she had the least chance of winning the 100 butterfly and that her best shot for victory would be in the 100 freestyle.
Even if she punches another ticket or two for the Tokyo Games, she feels she still has work to do in order to swim on par with the world’s best.
Even so, she feels like the games can be a positive experience.
“I think I can go to the next Olympics with more confidence if I experience the games in Tokyo,” she said.
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