Ikee Rikako reboots for Paris 2024 with 1st national collegiate crown

Two months after Tokyo 2020, two-time Olympian wins 50m freestyle for Nihon University as she embarks on journey towards a third Games.

By Shintaro Kano
Aquatic Sports
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Not a bad way for Ikee Rikako to take her first steps towards Paris 2024.

Two months removed from closing of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Ikee captured her first-ever title at the national collegiate championships with victory in the 50-metre freestyle on Thursday (7 October).

"Last year here I finished fourth and it was frustrating", Ikee said after clocking 25.02 seconds, now in her third year at Nihon University.

"So I wanted to win it this year no matter what. I wasn't very sharp and I knew it would come down to the touch but I toughed it out in the end.

"My time wasn't great but the most important thing is I won. That was my goal for this competition and I'm excited I got it done".

As the Japan record-holder of 24.21, Ikee's winning time was pedestrian by her standards in her first proper meet post-Tokyo 2020.

Ikee's unforgettable summer

The 21-year-old had a summer to remember after improbably qualifying for her second Games in April - only seven months following her return to competition and two years since being diagnosed with leukemia.

In her hometown Games, Ikee swam in three relays, qualifying for the final in only the medley.

Yet while she may have been nowhere near the podium, getting to the Games had been a monumental feat in itself.

There were tears, lots of tears, after her final race at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in an outpour of pent-up emotion - but accompanied by a burning desire to return to medal contention in Paris.

It didn't take long before Ikee was back in the pool. She warmed up for the collegiate championships on 27 August by cruising in the 200 freestyle in a one-off against rival Chuo University.

On 25 September - exactly two years since receiving a stem cell transplant - Ikee threw out the first pitch of a baseball game for the Yakult Swallows in her first public appearance post-Games. The reception was rousing to say the least.

This weekend she will enter the 100 butterfly, her signature race, and is also expected to swim in the relays.

Ikee will return to the international stage in 2022 when Fukuoka hosts the FINA World Championships in May - and when the world will get a look at a version closer to her old self, the one that stormed to six titles in winning the 2018 Asian Games MVP.

With nowhere to go but up, hope floats for Ikee.