Miracle worker: Ikee Rikako makes Japan's 4x100m relay team for Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021

The 20-year-old wins 100 butterfly in 57.77 seconds at Olympic trials to qualify for medley relay, two years after leukemia diagnosis and seven months after returning to competition.

By Shintaro Kano

Ikee Rikako has done it.

Two years after being diagnosed with leukemia and only seven months after returning to competition, Ikee is set to appear in the Olympic Games in her hometown after winning the 100-metre butterfly at the Japan swimming trials on Sunday (4 April).

Ikee's time of 57.77 seconds was not enough to qualify her for Tokyo 2020 individually - but met the Games qualifying time for the 4x100 medley relay team of 57.92.

Ikee, more than anyone, could not believe she had beaten the odds to punch her ticket to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

After all, when the 20-year-old first spoke publicly in February 2020 following her year-long bout with cancer, she said it was "a miracle" to be alive.

Yet now, Ikee has worked a whole another miracle.

"I can't begin to describe how happy I felt", Ikee said, unable to hold back the tears at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. "At that moment, I remembered everything I had to go through to get here. And I was absolutely spent, too.

“I was shocked. I couldn’t make sense out of anything. I think it’ll take a while for all this to sink in.

"Compared to the trials five years ago I was nowhere near as confident and I thought winning on this stage would be much further down the line. But I had put in the work.

"So no matter how unconfident or tough or difficult things are, if you work hard you get rewarded.

"In the end, I went into the race thinking, 'I'm home. I belong here’”.

Rikako Ikee's emotional reaction after winning the 100-meter butterfly final during the Japanese Championships. (The Yomiuri Shimbun)
Picture by Yomiuri

Fighting uncertainty

Ikee reached the final with the third best time from Saturday’s semi-finals, a 58.48.

While she is the Japan record-holder of 56.08, Ikee was far from confident before the race.

Ikee finished 0.41 ahead of runner-up Hasegawa Suzuka and perhaps knows better than anyone her work is cut out.

"I always thought I'd have the hardest time regaining my form in the butterfly. I never thought I could win this race," she said.

“I remembered the first time I swam the butterfly after coming back (on 20 February). I thought then it would be a while before I had any chance in the 100 fly.

“I thought if I had a shot it would be in the 100 free - for the relay. But even then it was slight. If I couldn’t qualify I could live with it.

“I’m really happy I won today but if you ask me if I can stand toe-to-toe against the best in the world with the time I had, then it would be a no.

“I have a lot of work to do”.

Japan head coach Hirai Norimasa however said he wasn't surprised Ikee won.

What surprised him was her time

"I'm the head coach so I probably shouldn't be making predictions, but I thought she would win today", Hirai said.

"What shocked me was her time. She put it all together - technique, mental strength, whatever amid the fatigue from yesterday.

"It was very impressive".

Rikako Ikee (C) poses for photo on the podium of the 100-meter butterfly at the Japan Championships ( The Yomiuri Shimbun )
Picture by Yomiuri

Tokyo back on the radar

In the seven events she swam in at Rio 2016 Ikee’s best result was fifth place - in the 100 fly.

Ever since coming back last year, she repeatedly stressed her goal was to return to the Games in Paris in 2024.

Those plans have now changed. At one point, Tokyo 2020 appeared to be an abandoned dream. But it’s real again - very real.

Ikee, though, is not done. She’s out for more.

At this meet which doubles as the national championships, Ikee is also on the start list for the 50 and 100 freestyle (Saturday and Thursday) and the 50 fly (also Saturday), a non-Olympic event.

"This race gives me incredible confidence. I still have three more event at this meet and I'm not about to let up yet.

“I’m incredibly happy but I still have a hard time believing I made it. But if and when I go to the Olympics, I’ll do everything I can to be even better.

“But now, I think having the experience of Tokyo for Paris will go a long ways”.

In the day’s two other finals, Kobori Waka and Namba Miyu qualified in the women’s 400 freestyle with a 4:06.34 and 4:06.36, respectively.

Rising breaststroke star Sato Shoma won the men’s 100 but his time of 59.30 fell short by 0.09.