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2021 HEART OF A CHAMPION AWARD: RIKAKO IKEE (JAPAN)
Rikako Ikee has once more been honored with the 2021 Heart of a Champion Award. The Japanese national record holder and 2021 Olympic finalist was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2019, and spent the next year receiving treatment.
She returned to the pool in March 2020, over a year after her diagnosis.
Ikee competed in the 50m Japan National Championships, which doubles as the Japanese Olympic Trials, earlier in April 2021. She claimed four gold medals at that meet, winning the 50 (25.56) and 100 butterfly (57.77) as well as the 50 (24.84) and 100 freestyle (53.98) events. Both her times in the 50 freestyle and butterfly were new National University Student records.
The 2016 Olympic finalist and 2018 Asian Games MVP qualified for the Tokyo Olympics as a member of the 4×100 freestyle and medley relays. Ikee did not qualify for the individual events because she missed the qualification times set forth by the Japanese Swimming Federation. There was speculation that the federation would permit her to race in individual events, but Ikee kept to the relays primarily to conserve her strength.
Her qualification came just two years after her leukemia diagnosis. In Tokyo, she helped Team Japan to the finals in the 4×100 medley relay where they finished eighth overall.
After qualifying for the games, Ikee said to the AP News:
I thought I wouldn’t be able to win for a long time. But I trained hard to win. And, in the end, I came into the race telling myself I’m back. And so I feel that, even if you go through suffering and pain, your hard work will always be rewarded.
Upon conclusion of the 2021 Olympics, she expressed her happiness with competing at a high level so soon after finishing treatment. At one point, she had given up on the thought of swimming in Tokyo, but was happy that she competed in the finals as a relay member. Ikee added, “It’s not a result I alone produced, but coming this far while not being sure if I can make the Games… I’m really happy.”
She continued her winning ways after the summer. At the Japan Inter-College Swimming Competition in October, Ikee won gold in the 50 freestyle (25.02) and silver in the 100 butterfly (58.63). That gold medal represented her first title ever at the national collegiate level, winning it in her third year at Nihon University.
At the 25m Japan National Swimming Championships, she won silver in the 100 freestyle (53.08) and bronze in the 50 freestyle (24.57).
The Japanese swimmer now has her eyes set on the 2024 Paris Olympics, where she hopes to compete in individual events as well as relays. “When I watched the 100-meter butterfly final,” Ikee said of Tokyo, “a sense of confidence sprang up in me that I’ll be able to compete.”
Before Paris, Ikee will return to international competition when Fukuoka hosts the FINA World Championships in May 2022.
On September 25, Ikee was honored at a Yakult vs Chunichi baseball game where she threw out the first pitch. That date marked the two-year anniversary of her first stem cell transplant.