Rikako Ikee lost many of the things that made her an elite athlete during her battle with leukemia after being diagnosed with the disease in February 2019.
She’s confident, however, that she can get back to where she was before the disease turned her life upside down.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, three days after officially being named to Japan’s team for the Tokyo Games, the 20-year-old swimmer reflected on her performance at last week’s national championships, which served as the country’s Olympic trials, and was positive that she’s only going to keep getting better.
“I’d say my start,” Ikee replied when asked where she thinks she can improve the most. “As far as my skills in the water, I don’t see much difference (from before the disease). In the 50-meter butterfly, I don’t feel like I had as good of a performance as I would have liked to, but I still came up with a (good) time. So if I can get a lead after the start, I can swim even faster, and I’m confident I can swim as well as anyone.”
The Tokyo native shocked the swimming world by sweeping the four disciplines — the 50 and 100 freestyle and 50 and 100 butterfly — she competed in at nationals just over half a year after returning to competition.
Even though she insisted her main goal was to swim at the 2024 Paris Games, Ikee earned spots in the women’s 4×100 freestyle and 4×100 medley relays for this summer’s games in Tokyo.
Having lost as much as 18 kg during her bout with the disease, Ikee has struggled to get off the starting block as strongly as she once did. She’s certain, however, she will continue to improve as she regains her strength.
“I feel like I’ve reached this point a lot faster than I thought I would have,” said Ikee, who will be competing at the Olympics for the second time. “I only have confidence that I’ll keep improving. The way I’ve been going has raised my expectations. So I’m looking forward to what may happen in the near future and I’m thrilled about the Olympics.”
The return of the nation’s swimming queen has been one of the biggest feel-good stories in Japanese sports this year.
Ikee was also happy to hear her story has apparently helped garner at least a little more public support for the Olympics.
Polls conducted by major Japanese media outlets earlier this year, however, showed about 80% of the public was not in favor of the games going ahead as scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t really read articles about myself,” said Ikee, who was named the 2018 Asian Games MVP after capturing six gold medals. “But I’ve seen there are people who don’t support the Tokyo Olympics or who are against it and people that support it and things like that. But I heard the number of people who expressed positive opinions on this increased because of what I did.”
In July of last year, Ikee participated in an event to mark one year to go until the games open at National Stadium and sent a message to the world that she wants “the flame of hope to shine” when the games kick off.
During an interview aired on NHK on Saturday, Ikee revealed she had told her mother she wanted to die while going through painful chemotherapy treatments in February 2019.
Now she’s serving as an inspiration to people around the world due to the astonishing speed of her recovery and the Olympic berths she earned.
“During our meetings at this training camp, we’ve been saying sports have the power to provide courage and hope and open the door to the future,” Ikee said. “I’m a believer in that. I’ve also been able to perform better after being inspired by athletes across different sports.
“So even if not everyone is in a positive place (due to the pandemic), I know people will pay attention to us when we perform well. So if the games go ahead, I want the public to give us their full support.”
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