IKEE Rikako was destined for a life in the water.
Born in the Edogawa ward of Tokyo in 2000, Ikee was brought into the world via water birth. At the age of three, she began swimming, and by age five she could already swim 50 metres in four styles: freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke. At the JOC Spring Swim Meet (13-14 year age group) held in March 2014, Ikee won the gold medal in the 50- and 100-metre freestyle events, setting the new junior high-school record in short course. She also won the gold medal in the 50-metre butterfly event.
At the age of 16, Ikee made her Olympics debut at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games and qualified to swim in seven different events - the largest number among the Japanese swimmers - where she came in 5th place in the 100-metre butterfly competition.
When the 93rd Japan Swim came around in 2017, Ikee won a record-breaking five gold medals. In the following year, she broke six Japanese records in four events at the 94th Japan Swim. The swimmer also won six gold medals at the Asian Games in 2018, the first swimmer ever to achieve the feat.
Diagnosis with cancer
After a seemingly non-stop record of success, Ikee’s life was suddenly turned upside down.
Having felt unusually breathless during a training camp in Australia in February 2018, the Japanese record holder was diagnosed with leukemia.
“The future I took for granted transformed overnight into something completely different. It was a bitter and painful experience,” she explained during a one year to go event.
What followed was a year-long struggle with cancer that brought Ikee to her knees.
"At my lowest point, I wanted to die. I felt I was better off dead if I had to go through this kind of pain. But looking back on it now, I really regret I ever thought that.
"I don't think for a second it was good I was ill, but I learned so much from becoming ill. I now know where I stand, how I should live my life. This will be a huge turning point for the rest of my life".
Returning to the pool
In March of 2020, Ikee Rikako finally made her return to the pool. It was her first swim in 406 days.
Quite understandably, the athlete was ecstatic:
"I finally got permission from the doctor to go to the pool. 406 days! I can't begin to describe how happy I am and how good I feel. I'm so fortunate.”
Ikee has already been on a long and difficult journey, but the road back to the highest levels of the swimming world will not be short. She was the perfect candidate to deliver an emotional message of hope to a world suffering with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, at the one-year-to-go event.
The message was clear: not to take life for granted.
“Walking outside. Meeting people. Using my entire body to swim in the pool. These simple pleasures are all so precious, yet before my illness I took them for granted."
“The other athletes who lost Tokyo 2020 must feel the same. The goal they'd been working toward suddenly disappeared.”
At the one-year-to-go event, Ikee was encouraging all of us to find hope in the future, starting with Tokyo 2020.
“Imagine the world in a year: a world where the curtain is set to rise on the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“Right now, athletes around the world are looking to that future, pushing themselves to the limit. No effort, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
“The confidence that sports inspires, the human connections it helps us make are truly irreplaceable.”
And two years after being diagnosed with leukemia, Ikee is now set to appear in the Olympic Games in her hometown on 24 July at the 4x100m freestyle relay. Could we imagine a better story than this one?