Ikee Rikako: 'It's a miracle I'm alive'

Japanese swimming prodigy 'felt she was better off dead' during treatment. Ikee Rikako talks about missing out on Tokyo 2020 and eyeing comeback at Paris 2024 in first interview since leukemia diagnosis.

By Shintaro Kano

Once projected to be a face of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Japanese swimmer Ikee Rikako made her first television appearance on Wednesday (19 February) since being diagnosed with life-threatening leukemia a year ago.

Ikee, 19, said during an interview with TV Asahi's flagship news programme Hodo Station that she felt lucky to be alive and at one point, even felt better off dead.

"I became sick and I couldn't swim anymore", said Ikee, who was visibly thinner than the form she was in when she won six gold medals and the MVP at the 2018 Asian Games.

"Swimming was always a given to me, I took it for granted. But now, it's a miracle just to be sitting here - it's a miracle I'm alive - and my thought process has changed". - Ikee Rikako.

"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 though 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".

Taking things in stride

Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia in February last year, after complaining of not feeling well during training camp in Australia the month before.

Upon being told of the diagnosis, Ikee, who was mostly all smiles during the interview on Wednesday, said she was relatively positive, taking things in stride.

"At the hospital, I was told by the doctor right away I had leukemia". she recalled. "Of course I had heard of leukemia but I didn't know exactly what it was about.

"Then I was told I had to go on chemotherapy and I'd lose all my hair. That was the biggest shock and I completely lost it then and there".

"But after I went back to my room, I was almost upbeat. I thought to myself, 'I'm sick and it is what it is'. I was able to move on. I'm not just saying this; I really felt positive at that time".

Yet Ikee had no idea how challenging the fight against leukemia would be.

In March 2019, she tweeted about how rough she felt undergoing chemotherapy but that would only be the beginning.

"I posted that tweet about three days after I started feeling nauseous - but it only got worse", Ikee said. "I couldn't pick up my phone, couldn't watch TV, couldn't eat. That lasted for two weeks. I couldn't even move in bed.

"I think what is tough and what's not tough depends on the person, but I'm pretty sure I went through an experience that I'll probably never experience again in my entire life. I was completely broken".

The following August, Ikee was temporarily permitted to leave the hospital, spending her time at her beloved Tokyo Disneyland and other places someone of her age would be at on a day off.

Rikako Support

Freed from pressure to win

Ikee on Wednesday said during her time in treatment, felt liberated from the pressure of being the poster girl, a gold-medal favourite in a Games in her hometown.

"When I was first allowed out of the hospital for four days or so, I was so happy that I could get out, ride in a car, eat out", she said. "I felt badly for having the negative thoughts I had because there was so much to look forward to in life.

"To be honest as an athlete, I probably was not in the best of mindsets. When I got sick I was close to a world record, I was ranked No. 1 in the world and I was being touted as a gold-medal shot at the Tokyo Olympics.

"I didn't know it then, but there was a lot of pressure on me and when I knew I didn't have to think about the Olympics... That's when I learned I was pressed.

"Olympics, gold medal - once I was freed from those words I was relieved and I think that's how I was able to stay so positive".

The Tokyo native, however, admitted that during worst times she felt like she couldn't face up to anyone - not even to her family.

"There was a period during the treatment when I was unbelievably nauseous and vomiting. I was in the bathroom pretty much the entire time, and I had to tell myself this was not going to last forever and that I would be eventually OK.

"But I had to tell myself that so I could somehow get through it. I was very pessimistic then but it's what I had to tell myself so I could get by.

"Honestly, I didn't want people to see me the way I was. I always got it done in the pool throughout my entire career, never whined about anything and I couldn't tell anyone how hard it was when I was sick.

"I felt like I couldn't even lean on my family... I didn't want to feel like I was a burden to them".

Ikee Rikako working out 

Ikee was permanently discharged from hospital in December. She started training again earlier this month but has yet to resume swimming.

Having had to give up on Tokyo 2020, her goal now is to qualify for Paris 2024 when she will be 24.

If not Paris, then it's on to Los Angeles 2028, Ikee says.

"Even if I can't make Paris, I've still got the next one (in LA) when I'll be 28. I'm not 100 per cent confident but I need to give myself something to shoot for in life.

"Paris is my No. 1 goal right now. I haven't even started swimming again but I'm already thinking about my times.

"I have dreams of myself swimming every now and then - with pretty good times, too".