5 Unlikely Tokyo 2020 Journeys: Japan’s Rikako Ikee

Five athletes, five journeys with a common destination and a date: Tokyo – July 23rd, 2021. 

Five stories to be told, five chances to find out how many things can hide behind an Olympian or an Olympic medal. 

Those who feel the pressure to repeat and an obligation to succeed, a joy that sometimes tends to turn into relief. Those who have nothing to lose and therefore may even win. Those who have already achieved their goal and can now dream even bigger. Those who live a second youth, those who live an early maturity. 

Here are the stories of five swimmers and their unique journey to the Tokyo Olympic Games. 


There are stories you must tell starting from the end. And this is not really the end, but it is the end of a significant chapter in Rikako Ikee‘s life and career. On April 4th, a shy athlete, after her competition at Japan Swim 2021, approaches the journalist who is waiting for her on the poolside.

Ikee Rikako

Rikako Ikee 2017 World Championships Budapest, Hungary (photo: Mike Lewis)

She greets all people present, says thanks to everyone with a few words, almost whispered. She then turns and takes a bow, perhaps to the few present in the stands, more likely to the water, and bursts into tears. 

Ikee’s journey to the Olympic Games ends with tears of joy after reaching a milestone as unexpected as it was desired. But her journey begins two years earlier, with a diagnosis that leaves no room for imagination: leukemia. 

Ikee herself delivers the shocking news to the world. During a training camp in Australia, she suffered the first symptoms and decided to return to Tokyo, her hometown, where the doctors communicated the terrible news. 

“I have leukemia, but I can beat it. From now on I will focus on the treatment, and I’ll show an even stronger Ikee Rikako.” This is the 19-year-old Japanese’s announcement on her social profiles, choosing the photo of a huge flowers bouquet to give everyone this terrible news as if to sugar the pill to those who were reading. 

Naturally, bad things happen, and when they happen to young people, to athletes, a symbol of strength and invincibility, it makes even more noise. You feel that bit of extra compassion, even if they are literally on the other side of the world. Even if we do not know the people involved directly, a feeling of injustice comes to our heart, attenuated only by the words of those who are experiencing that nightmare but try to reassure everyone, “I’ll be back.” 

When Ikee says she wants to return, everyone’s thoughts go to the Olympics that will be held not only in her country but in her city and for which Ikee was chosen as the face for the five-circle campaign. Those Olympics are too close, yet also very far from the mind of those who have just seen their priorities turned upside down. 

Emma McKeon, Margaret MacNeil, Sarah Sjöström - courtesy Rafael Domeyko

Emma McKeon, Margaret MacNeil, Sarah Sjöström – courtesy Rafael Domeyko

The world, however, outside the oncology department of the Tokyo hospital, continues to go on. Athletes compete, reach international podiums. At the Gwangju World Championships, the three athletes on the podium of the 100 butterfly race, paid homage to Ikee with a gesture that will remain etched in everyone’s memory, “Never Give Up.” 

Then, in a game played by fate, (or so it must have seemed to her), the Olympic Games are moved to 2021, as if to offer her a chance, a bonus year to try to be present when the torch sets the Olympic basin on fire.

Of course, the world tells a different story. One about a pandemic, deadly viruses, political pressures, organizational difficulties. Yet looking only at it from Ikee’s point of view, the Games in 2021 represent a gift. A gift that, however, must be gained with sweat and effort, and the first images of Ikee back in the pool coincide with the days of the postponement decision, under the supervision of the doctors but with an unmistakable smile. 

A worn-out body, so fragile that it almost seems to fly away in the wind. The disease is beaten, now all she needs is time and strength. 

A few months later, Ikee’s dream path ends with 57.77 swum in the 100 butterfly race at Japan Swim, which officially qualified her for her second Olympic Games, making the impossible possible. 

A part of the world will have heard Ikee’s name only next to the announcing of her illness, and then her recovery. But the story of this young and talented athlete, I mean the whole story, begins long before February 2019.

Rikako Ikee 2017 World Championships Budapest, Hungary (photo: Mike Lewis)

It starts in Edogawa’s pool, the closest to her home when at age three she starts swimming, and at just 5 years old she can swim all 4 strokes. She continues as a crystalline talent when at the age of 14 she improves numerous school records and in 2016, at the age of 16, she was the Japanese swimmer entered in the most events at the Games in Rio: 7.

This is the story of the six gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games, an appetizer of what everyone would have expected at the next year’s World Championship and the Olympics. It is a long journey, which goes beyond her illness and tells us of a star who has started a journey in Tokyo and that in Tokyo will somehow see her crowning glory.

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Ol' Longhorn
3 months ago

As Rudy T said, “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”

3 months ago


Reply to  aquajosh
3 months ago

and carry the team flag

3 months ago

Incredible athlete. She’s such and inspiration. … and the tribute by Maggie MacNeil, etc was so incredible … rock the world in Tokyo, ladies!! We’re cheering for you … 🔥❤️🔥🇨🇦🇨🇦

3 months ago

This was beautifully written!

About Aglaia Pezzato

Aglaia Pezzato

Cresce a Padova e dintorni dove inizialmente porta avanti le sue due passioni, la danza classica e il nuoto, preferendo poi quest’ultimo. Azzurrina dal 2007 al 2010 rappresenta l’Italia con la nazionale giovanile in diverse manifestazioni internazionali fino allo stop forzato per due delicati interventi chirurgici. 2014 Nel 2014 fa il suo esordio …

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