Another race, another chapter in Ikee Rikako's phenomenal comeback story.
Ikee on Sunday (7 February) climbed the podium for the first time since returning to competition in August, finishing second in the 50-metre freestyle on the last day of the Japan Open.
After topping the heats in 25.06 seconds, Ikee clocked 24.91 in the final, losing by a touch to Omoto Rika (24.75) at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Igarashi Chihiro grabbed bronze with a 24.99 in what was an intense sprint to the wall.
Since her first meet back after beating leukemia on 29 August, Ikee has now shaved 1.41 off her time and come within 0.70 of the Japan record she owns.
The Olympic qualifying standard in the women's 50 free is 24.46. The national championships/trials for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are 3-10 April.
Sato Shoma edged Watanabe Ippei in a sizzling finale to the four-day meet in the men's 200 breaststroke, Sato again striking 2:06.
"I wasn’t expecting to be in the lead after qualifying", Ikee said.
"I was aiming for a 25.3 here and I attained that in the heats. Then I was even faster in the final so I’m happy with how things turned out.
"The race was super competitive. All three of us on the podium swam a 24 so considering how high the level was, I can live with second place. I feel like I’m getting a lot better.
"I’ve been practising with confidence, knowing the kind of time I'm capable. But I didn’t think I could manage a 24.91 here".
In no hurry
Her upper body looking noticeably stronger compared to a year ago, Ikee seems to be surpassing all expectations - even those of her own.
Improving with every meet, hopes of her making an improbable appearance at the Games this summer continue to rise.
Two weeks ago at the Kosuke Kitajima Cup, the 20-year-old posted a 55.35 in the 100, good enough to qualify her for the Olympic trials.
Ikee, however, tried to temper such buzz, insisting her realistic target remains Paris 2024.
In two weeks, the 2018 Asian Games MVP will swim the butterfly for the first time since coming back in a local meet in Tokyo.
"I’m not obsessing over the Tokyo Olympics", she said.
"I’m not competing this year with the Games as my goal, really. There’s just no need for me to rush.
"It hasn’t even been a year since I returned and I’m now only fractions of a second away from my personal best. I want to go faster.
"Winning in Japan does not guarantee you a thing on the world stage. If and when I’m ready to compete at that level, I’ll worry about it but I don't think I’m there yet".
Sato stealing Watanabe's thunder
On the eve of his 20th birthday, Sato unleashed a personal best of 2:06.74 in a convincing win over former world record-holder Watanabe.
While both were on pace to rewrite Anton Chukpov's world record turning into the last 50, it was the fearless teenager who held on for victory by 0.80 - and missing Watanabe's national record by 0.07.
Sato had become only the fourth swimmer in history to mark a 2:06 at the Kosuke Kitajima Cup, and was confident he could do it again this weekend. He was right.
"The personal best is nice but I missed the Japan record again", said Sato, who is not an international name like Watanabe - yet - but has clearly emerged as a legitimate gold-medal candidate for Japan. "It's not easy.
"I want to be able to consistently hit 2:06 and win the nationals".
Watanabe - who set the early pace with splits of 28.83 and 1:01.05 before fading - was visibly gutted by the defeat, vowing revenge at the trials.
"Sato has been consistently swimming a 2:06 and from what I can tell, he has the upside to swim even faster", he said. "But that's not an excuse for me to lose.
"My life depends on the trials. I think the world will be tuning into see what Sato and I do in April". - Watanabe Ippei
"I don't want to just make the team. I want to make the team by being No. 1."