Ever since the modern Olympics commenced in 1896, history has given us innumerable stories of Athletes who have overcome a multitude of adversities.. ranging from personal tragedies, monetary difficulties, gender biases, war times, and terminal health issues.
But it does seem Sports more than any other sphere of life, has the power to inspire, provide courage and hope, and open doors to the future.
One of those in this elite list of athletes is the 21-year-old Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee.
Her's is a story of many a milestone which needs to be told in the reverse chronology but for now, we will stick to the normal order-
The baby steps
From the tender age of 3, Rikako entered the Edogawa swimming pool closest to her home. Her amazing talent shone through as she could swim all 4 strokes by the age of 5.
Not surprisingly, Rikako broke through many school records by 14 and in 2016, at the tender age of 16, she was the Japanese swimmer who had qualified in the most number of events at the Rio Olympics (7).
2016 to 2019 - the best of Rikako Ikee
At the Kitajima Cup in Tokyo in January 2016, she broke the national record in the 100 m freestyle, swimming clocking 53.99 seconds becoming the first Japanese woman to go sub-54 seconds This record stood barely 2 months, and fell in the hands of compatriot Miki Uchida.
In February, she broke the national record in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 24.74 at the Konami Open.
After improving her national record in the 100 m butterfly, Rikako qualified in 4 individual events- 50 m, 100 m, 200 m freestyle, 100 m fly, and 3 relay events (4 × 100 m freestyle relay, 4 × 200 m freestyle relay, and 4 × 100 m medley relay).
She broke her 100 m butterfly national record on three occasions- heats, semis, and finals. She entered the Games with the best timing of 57.55 in this event and left Rio with a personal best (national record) of 56.86 seconds and an enhanced reputation as 'one for the future'.
2017 World Championships
Ikee finished sixth in the 100 m butterfly event posting a time of 57.08 seconds
In the 4x100m freestyle relay, alongside teammates Tomomi Aoki, Yui Yamane, and Chihiro Igarashi, she finished sixth.
In the 4x200m freestyle relay, alongside teammates Chihiro Igarashi, Tomomi Aoki, and Aya Takano, she finished fifth overall, with Rikako splitting a 1:57.38.
2017 World Junior Championships
Rikako continued her success from Budapest into the World Junior Championships held in Indianapolis.
Gold medals were nailed down in the 50 m freestyle (24.59 seconds), 50 m butterfly (25.46 seconds), and 100m fly (57.25 seconds). She bagged a silver medal in the 100 m freestyle with a time of 54.16 seconds. On top of this, she managed to win the bronze medal across the 4×100 freestyle relay, 4×200 m freestyle relay, and 4×100 m medley relay, bringing her total medal haul to 7.
In both her freestyle relays, she had the fastest split of the entire field. In the medley relay, her fly split was only .03 seconds slower than her Canadian rival- Penny Oleksiak.
2018 Pan Pacific Championships
The teenaged Japanese made it a night to remember with a silver medal in the 200 m freestyle, finishing ahead of the reigning Olympic champion Katie Ledecky with a national record time of 1:54.85.
She was back in the water the same night in the 4x100 m mixed medley relay, splitting a 55.53-second butterfly to help Japan secure silver.
Not content with her double silver, Rikako finally earned her first gold of the meet, clocking 56.08 seconds in the 100 m butterfly to blow away the competition and the meet record!
On day 4, after finishing 6th in the 50 m freestyle, she finished off her Pan-Pacific performance with a bronze in the women's 4×100 medley relay, clocking a butterfly split of 55.48 seconds. Once again a Japanese national record.
The best and the worst were yet to come
2018 Asian Games
The Jakarta games were her most successful in terms of the medal haul, garnering 8 of them. This included 4-for-4 Golds in her individual events, in which she set games records in all of them:
50 m freestyle -24.53 seconds
100 m freestyle - 53.27 seconds
50 m butterfly - 25.55 seconds
100 m butterfly - 56.30 seconds.
She helped Japan win gold medals in the 4×100 m freestyle and medley relays, and silver medals in the 4×200 m freestyle and 4×100 m mixed medley relays.
By now the Japanese national records for the 50 m, 100 m, and 200 m freestyle, and 50 m and 100 m butterfly were held by the then 18-year-old Ikee.
She was voted the Most Valuable Player of the Asian Games. By now she was her country's biggest hope for the 2019 Worlds and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
With the Swimming World at her feet, she set off to Australia for a 3-week training program when she developed certain symptoms. Upon an early return from the camp, Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2019.
Bad health happens, but you expect it least in the bodies of the seemingly invincible elite athletes at ages when their fitness is supposed to be at its peak.
During the illness, Rikako had lost around 18kgs and in a recently aired interview, she spoke of wanting to die during her painful chemotherapy sessions.
But strong of mind and heart the 20-year-old Japanese was back training in March 2020 under the watchful eyes of a team of doctors. Her victorious fight with the dreaded disease lasted 10 months.
Despite such an enormous loss of strength, stamina, and muscle, the lion-hearted swimmer stood first in as many as 4 disciplines at the Japanese Nationals in April 2021. This, after resuming full competition in August 2020.
The Fina-A qualification mark proved beyond her, but Rikako earned places in 400 m freestyle relay and the 400 m medley relay. At the Japanese trials, Rikako clocked 57.77 seconds in the 100 m butterfly event.
The 100 m butterfly has been her favorite event over the years. Her 56.08 seconds record was not far behind Sarah Sjostrom's world record of 55.48 seconds when illness struck and many including Rikako believed that the Swede's world record was within her reach.
Tough competition ahead
Over the last couple of years, as Rikako battled with the illness, the loss of weight, muscle, and stamina have gradually moved other swimmers ahead in the pecking order.
Emma Mckeown of Australia, Tori Huske of the USA, Yufei Zhang of China, and Margaret Macneil of Canada have clocked sub 56 seconds on more than one occasion. Rikako may be out of the individual races but she knows just how important it is for her to regain her 2018 form for her relay teams to stand any chance for a shot at the medals.
Irrespective of what happens at the Tokyo Olympics, Rikako Ikee has already transcended the sport of swimming not just by her deeds within the pool but outside of it also.
Her ability to concentrate and work hard during such physical hardships should serve as an inspiration to other athletes. Even when low on confidence, if you have a good work ethic, you can do wonders.
More importantly to people who suffer from this dreaded disease, Rikako has shown that proper treatment, care, and rehabilitation make it possible to get back to normal life.
At the Gwangju World Championships, the three athletes on the podium of the 100 m butterfly race, paid homage to Ikee with a gesture that will remain etched in everyone's memory - "Never Give Up." written on their palms. That iconic image will always linger in the minds of the people who saw it.
And when Rikako Ikee takes the plunge at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, she can proudly say ' I NEVER GAVE UP!'.