New and improved: Ikee Rikako faster, stronger in second race back

Not much rust to shake off as Japanese Rio 2016 Olympian improves by 0.70 seconds just a month into her return after surviving leukemia.

By Shintaro Kano

Ikee Rikako is not wasting a whole lot of time on the comeback trail as the cancer-beating Rio 2016 Olympian finished an eyebrow-raising fourth in the women's 50-meter freestyle at the Inter College Swimming Championships on Thursday (1 October).

Only a month after competing for the first time since being diagnosed with leukemia, an absence of 1 year and 7 months, Ikee improved by 0.70 seconds, touching the wall in 25.62 at Tokyo's Tatsumi International Swimming Center.

While her Rio 2016 teammate Imai Runa comfortably won the race in a meet record of 24.93, Ikee did not take a backseat to anyone else.

Ikee Rikako's comeback has been better than even what she expected.

"I've been aiming for this competition for the past year so it meant a lot", the 20-year-old said. "I was pretty emotional even before I got in the pool.

"I was happy to be here competing and that I swam in under 26 seconds. I kept it to myself but my goal for this meet was a 25.8 - and I did it in the heats. I'm really glad I achieved my goal".

Ikee's performance left her close friend Imai thrilled and shaking her head in disbelief.

"First of all I was so happy to be in a final with Rikako again", Imai said. "How does one come back as quickly as she has? A 25.6? She's a genius".

All eyes naturally were on Ikee on the first day of the four-day championships, and she certainly did not disappoint.

Compared to her on 29 August, the 2018 Asian Games MVP looked noticeably more muscular on this day as a result of her weight training twice a week now.

"Everyone was telling me I look different, that I put on muscle", she said. "I was stronger than I realised. I was lifting two times a week and I think it's paying off".

Indeed it has.

No turning back

Ikee was third in her heat, coming from behind to cut a time of 25.87 to advance to the final sixth overall.

Her mark in the heats alone would have met the qualifying standard for this year’s senior nationals - 26.18 - had they not been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Swimming in the seventh lane in the final, for which Ikee said she was "more relaxed than in the heats", she again came on late to nearly reach the podium.

Had she had a better reaction time - it was a second-from-bottom 0.67 in the race - Ikee probably could have brushed aside everyone not named Imai.

While Ikee, the Japan record-holder in the 50 free with a 24.21, was more confident and certain she could improve on her last race but not by as much 0.70.

"I was confident I'd be faster - but not this fast", she said. "I surprised myself. I'm still more than a full second off my record but I'm happy I had my best time of the season today.

"Before the last competition, I was more worried than excited to be swimming again. I almost felt embarrassed because I was so skinny. But today I was itching to go. I felt confident and just positive all around".

Ikee, who is eyeing her Olympic reprisal at Paris 2024, said she did not know when or where her next competition would be.

"Where do I go from here? Just enjoy swimming to the fullest and work hard every day. That's what's important for me at this point in time".