Ikee Rikako wows in return to competitive swimming

In first meet in 594 days, 20-year-old cancer survivor wins a women's 50-metre freestyle race.

By Shintaro Kano

Call it however you want: Amazing. Inspirational. Brilliant. Ikee Rikako is back.

Ikee on Saturday (29 August) swam competitively for the first time since the leukemia diagnosis that derailed her burgeoning career - an absence of 1 year and 7 months - and topped her one-off heat in the women's 50-metre freestyle in 26.32 seconds at a Tokyo Swimming Association meet.

The time meets the qualifying standard (26.86) for the national collegiate championships in October, an event Ikee has said she is targeting.

"(With 15 metres left) I thought I might have a shot here and I just didn't want to give in", Ikee told reporters following the race. "As an athlete, I didn't want to lose".

Ikee Rikako returned to competitive swimming in style.

Swimming in the third lane of the fifth group in the women's 50 free - a discipline she holds the Japan record in at 24.21 - Ikee looked noticeably thinner than the rest of the field.

But once she leapt off her block, the Rio 2016 Olympian looked surprisingly strong for someone who had not competed in 594 days. Ikee took just one breath during the race and touched the wall first, 0.44 faster than runner-up Onoda Aoi.

After climbing out of the pool, Ikee took a bow and shed tears of mixed emotions.

"I was nervous but I'm glad I've gotten off to a good start in restarting my career", Ikee said. "I'm off to my second swimming career.

"More than my time, I didn't think I'd finish first. That made me happier than anything".

Ikee's previous competitive appearance dates back to January 2019, a month before her cancer diagnosis.

The 20-year-old had posted a video of herself working out ahead of the weekend, signaling her strength.

Ikee broke the national record in the women's 50 free in April 2018 before going on to dominate the Asian Games that year. She stormed to six titles in Jakarta and was named the Games MVP.

Once seen as a face for hosts Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Ikee is eyeing an Olympic comeback at Paris 2024.

The Tokyo native was released from hospital in December 2019 following treatment, and this March took her first dip since falling ill, before featuring in the Games' One Year to Go ceremony held at the Olympic Stadium last month.

The 12-month delay of Tokyo 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic had fans hopeful that she might be able to return in time to take part in her home Games in 2021.

Ahead of Ikee's reprisal, Kosuke Hagino comfortably won his race in the men's 200 free in 1:48.95.

While his time was almost four seconds off the Japan record he owns (1:45.23), Hagino was tops among seven heats in the men's 200 free on this day.

The Rio 2016 men's 400 individual medley champion was just happy to be swimming again with the virus having wiped out the competition calendar this season.

"Thanks to so many people, I'm extremely happy we all have an opportunity to compete", the 26-year-old Hagino said. "It feels like the season has finally begun".