'Good to be alive': Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee's remarkable journey from illness to the Olympics

When Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee lines up for her legs in the Olympic relays, it will be an emotional moment for both her and the legions of fans in Japan and abroad that have watched her fight back from leukemia.

Japanese swimmer diagnosed with leukemia in 2019, to race relays at Tokyo 2020

Japan's Rikako Ikee, seen above at the 2018 Asian Games, is set to compete at the Tokyo Olympics less than three years after being diagnosed with leukemia. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

After winning six gold medals as MVP of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, 18-year-old swimmer Rikako Ikee was riding high and poised for glory on the world stage at the 2020 Olympics in her hometown.

Just a few short months later, however, Ikee found herself fighting for her life — she was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in February 2019. When Ikee disclosed her illness in a post on social media, the shock among the Japanese public was immense.

Here was a young athlete in her prime and on her way to likely becoming a global superstar, stricken with a deadly disease. Ikee's announcement was front-page news in Japan and on television.

People could only shake their heads at Ikee's dramatic reversal of fortune. It was the kind of moment that made many young people think about their own mortality for the first time. Ikee, a student at Nihon University, received an incredible outpouring of support from fellow athletes and fans.

WATCH | Outpouring of support for Ikee after leukemia diagnosis:

Medallists show support for swimmer battling leukemia

2 years ago
Gold medallist Maggie Mac Neil of Canada and the 2 other medallists of the women's 100m butterfly pay tribute to Rikako Ikee of Japan who revealed her leukemia diagnosis earlier this year. 0:30

Ikee, who had finished sixth in the 100-metre butterfly at the 2016 Rio Games as a high-school freshman, said at the time that she hoped to recover after treatment for her illness and return to the pool to swim at the 2024 Paris Olympics. It was clear that even 18 months later she would be in no condition to swim at the Tokyo Games.

Then, in an absolutely bizarre twist of fate — a once-in-a-century pandemic — Ikee's timetable was suddenly extended by 12 months. Ikee, who emerged understandably frail from her successful treatment, which included chemotherapy and 10 months in the hospital, played down talk that she would attempt to swim at Tokyo 2020.

Ikee was released from the hospital in January of 2020 and began training again in March. She returned to the pool in late August after nearly 600 days away and won her heat in the 50m freestyle at a Tokyo meet.

Japan national team coach Norimasa Hirai said at the time that he was impressed by what he saw of Ikee in her return.

"Some athletes have lost sight of their goals because the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed," Hirai told Japan Forward sports editor Ed Odeven. "But for Rikako, overcoming illness and making a comeback indicate that she truly loves swimming.

"I think top athletes not only have the opportunity to follow the results in front of them, but also to ask themselves about the significance of continuing to compete and grow [as athletes and individuals]," Hirai added.

Hirai felt that Ikee's return would reverberate far beyond the pool.

"I think her swim not only gives everyone courage, but also shows us many things, such as the significance of continuing to compete and the courage of human beings," Hirai stated.

The swimming world began stirring at this point.

WATCH | Ikee could be next swimming superstar:

Rikako Ikee: Japan's next swimming superstar

3 years ago
18-year-old swimming phenom Rikako Ikee has been making waves in the swimming universe since she was fifteen. Competing in the 50, 100 and 200 metre freestyle events, she is a name to look out for ahead of Tokyo 2020. 1:09

Was it possible that Ikee could actually be fit enough to compete at the delayed Tokyo Olympics?

Ikee's story was starting to shape up as the kind they make movies about. She added to her legacy by winning four events (50m butterfly, 100m butterfly, 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle) at the Olympic trials this April in Tokyo.

Her victory in the 100m free qualified her to participate in the 4x100m medley and 4x100m freestyle relays for Japan at the Olympics.

Eyeing national records

Though her times were not fast enough to qualify her for the individual events at the Games under the Japan Swimming Federation's rules, Ikee expressed satisfaction after emerging from the pool in tears at the trials.

"I'm thrilled I won four titles here," stated Ikee, who began swimming at three. "Overall, I thought my times were very good. I went into these national championships with an attitude I didn't have in the past."

Ikee's performances had her thinking about more than victories.

"I think I'm getting closer and closer to breaking the Japan records I have," Ikee said. "Might not happen right away but I'm getting there."

Ikee celebrates after qualifying for the Olympics at national trials in April. (Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

Though she won't be swimming in individual races at the Olympics, Ikee's mere presence as a member of the relay teams will serve as inspiration for her teammates.

"She will be a very valuable member of the country's relay squads and the fact that she was able to earn Olympic qualification in relay events is a testament to her perseverance and pure talent," John Lohn, the editor in chief of Swimming World magazine, remarked.

"Missing the time she did while battling leukemia, her initial goal was to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. But she progressed quicker than expected and was able to earn a place on the team that will compete on home soil. It was not just an impressive feat, but heart-warming to see. She has been widely supported and cheered on by fellow competitors, and her story resonated around the world.

"Prior to her illness, Rikako rated as one of the world's elite performers in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly. She has impressive range and, had she not been stricken by leukemia, would have surely competed for individual medals in Tokyo. Based on her progress, she will likely be a factor at the Paris Games."

Ikee competes in the 100 butterfly in April. (Iori Sagisawa/Kyodo News via AP)

Ikee displayed her competitive streak outside the pool back in May when anti-Olympics supporters began sending her messages on social media asking her to drop out of the Games or oppose them due to the pandemic.

"Even if you want me to oppose [holding the Olympics], nothing I say will change anything," Ikee wrote in Japanese on Twitter. "I share your desire to emerge from this darkness as quickly as possible, but to put that burden on the shoulders of individual athletes is very tough."

Ikee went on to explain that she was dealing with stress caused by the ongoing pandemic due to her battle with leukemia.

"I have a chronic illness, and whether the games are held or not, I live every day with the anxiety of possibly [being infected with the coronavirus and] becoming seriously ill," Ikee wrote.

Olympic spirit on display

Odeven, who has worked in Japan for 15 years, and covered swimming at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Olympics, noted Ikee's appeal is far-reaching.

"Rikako Ikee is one of the most popular Japanese athletes because of her perseverance and determination to overcome leukemia and strive for excellence in the pool," Odeven remarked. "Ikee's dedication and hard work resonate with people of all ages."

When Ikee lines up for her legs in the Olympic relays, it will be an emotional moment for both her and the legions of fans in Japan and abroad that have watched her comeback.

Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, once described his view of the spirit of the Games at this: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

Ikee is a living example of this — and her story is not over yet.

In her final event before the Olympics, Ikee and her teammates set a Japanese record in the 200 freestyle relay at a meet in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, on her 21st birthday on July 4.

Reflecting on her epic journey over the past 2-½ years, Ikee succinctly put it in perspective afterward.

"It was really tough," Ikee commented. "I honestly think it's good to be alive."

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