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The pursuit of excellence has produced countless stories of triumph throughout Olympic history, with audiences worldwide captivated by genuine moments of inspiration and courage.

Every athlete who competes at the Games has their own unique backstory to tell, overcoming adversity and personal hardship in order to try and reach the podium.

A number of athletes from Japan have overcome major setbacks in their bid to win gold at the Games in front of a home crowd.

Here’s a look at a few Japanese athletes who have overcome adversity just to participate at the Olympics in the first place.

Rikako Ikee

Swimming

There’s no doubt the miraculous return of Rikako Ikee, who was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2019, has been one of the biggest feel-good stories in Japanese sports in recent years.

When the winner of six gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games revealed she had been diagnosed with cancer, few would have imagined she would be able to participate in the Games in her home city.

But she returned to competitive swimming in August 2020, and eventually ended up winning four disciplines — including the 100 freestyle and butterfly — at April’s national swimming championships to clinch a spot at the Tokyo Games.

“I didn’t think I would win the 100 and I had much less confidence this time than I had at the Olympic trials five years ago. I thought I would start winning again way later,” a tearful Ikee said right after she won the 100 freestyle at the national championships. “But I’ve practiced to win and I entered the pool feeling like I’m back. This win taught me that even if you don’t have confidence, you can still be selected if you continue to put in the effort.”

The 20-year-old, who competed at the Rio Olympics as a high school student, will compete in relay events at the Games. She will be part of the 4×100 freestyle relay, and could swim in the 4×100 medley and 4×100 mixed medley relay competitions as well.

Swimmers Daiya Seto (right) and Kosuke Hagino have been friends and rivals since childhood. | KYODO
Swimmers Daiya Seto (right) and Kosuke Hagino have been friends and rivals since childhood. | KYODO

Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto

Swimming

Swimming fans will be aware that Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto have been friends and rivals since childhood.

Coincidentally, the pair will enter the Olympics on home soil both having overcome difficulties — yet for completely different reasons.

Hagino was the first to make a splash on the world stage, stunning pundits by winning bronze in the men’s 400-meter individual medley as a high school student at the 2012 London Olympics and then racking up three medals, including a 400 IM gold, four years later in Brazil.

However, Hagino was forced to undergo surgery on his right elbow after the Rio Games and the talented young swimmer has not been the same since.

It was Seto who then took over the spotlight. Seto won two titles at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta before collecting gold medals in the 200 and 400 IMs and silver in the 200 butterfly at the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

The success at the world championships in 2019 made Seto a favorite for gold in the pool at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But after the Games were postponed due to the pandemic, a tabloid publication accused him of being involved in an extramarital affair, a revelation that led to a suspension lasting several months and resulted in lost sponsorship deals.

In spite of that adversity, both Seto and Hagino have clinched Olympic berths.

Hagino, who used to be called Japan’s Michael Phelps for competing in multiple disciplines, will hit the water for the 200 IM and 4×200 freestyle relay, while Seto is set to compete in the 200 and 400 IMs as well as the 200 butterfly.

At April’s national championships, which served as the Olympic trials, the two rivals went head-to-head in a thrilling 200 IM final. In the end, Seto edged Hagino by just 0.02 seconds.

“It’s inspiring to be competing with him in the same race. It’s also fun. It took everything I had to beat him,” Seto said of the close race with Hagino. “Although the things we’ve both been through are different, a lot of things have happened to the two of us. I want to perform well together with him at the Tokyo Olympics and, hopefully, we will put on a great performance together in the 200 IM there.”

Badminton star Kento Momota | REUTERS
Badminton star Kento Momota | REUTERS

Kento Momota

Badminton

Few athletes have more motivation to participate in the Tokyo Olympics than badminton star Kento Momota.

Momota, 26, had been a gold-medal hopeful ahead of the 2016 Rio Games but he did not go to Brazil after being suspended for illegal gambling.

Once the punishment was lifted, Momota started his career from scratch and it paid off in triumphant fashion. In 2018, he captured the men’s singles gold at the world championships in Nanjing, China, and topped the world rankings soon after — both achievements represented firsts for a Japanese man.

In 2019, Momota defended his world title while extending his winning streak at international events to 28. He was ultimately named player of the year.

But then tragedy struck.

After he won the Malaysia Masters in January 2020, the Kagawa Prefecture native was severely injured in a car accident in which the driver was killed. Momota resumed training in December and, thanks to the postponent of the Olympics, will be able to compete on home soil at this year’s Games.

If all of that wasn’t enough to cope with, Momota tested positive for COVID-19 in January.

Despite all of those obstacles, Momota, who still sits atop the world rankings, will be one of the top contenders for gold at the Tokyo Games.

Track star Asuka Terada | KYODO
Track star Asuka Terada | KYODO

Asuka Terada

Athletics

The 31-year-old mom has probably attracted more attention than any other female Japanese track athlete in recent years.

Asuka Terada won the 100-meter hurdles at the national athletics championships when she was 18. However, a series of injuries and an eating disorder forced her to hang up her spikes in 2013 at the age of 23. The Sapporo native then got married and had her first child in 2014.

In 2016, she returned to international competition, but not in the sport she had first specialized in. Terada surprised commentators by earning a place on the provisional women’s national rugby sevens team and began training to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in January 2017.

However, she badly broke her right leg in May the same year and was forced to give up on that dream.

In 2019, Terada returned to the track, proving to be even stronger than she had been before her retirement. From September of that year, Terada has broken the national 100-meter hurdles record four times. The current record is 12.87 seconds, which was 0.03 off the Olympic qualification mark, yet Terada qualified for the Tokyo Games based on the current world rankings.

News outlets often describe Terada as being a rare female athlete to compete at the highest level as a wife and mother. However, Terada says she wants athletes such as herself to eventually become commonplace in Japanese sports.

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