Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Japanese star who beat cancer to swim at the Olympics

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When the Tokyo Olympics finally kick off this week, Japanese organizers expect months of controversy over Covid-19 to be swept away by the power of sport and, in particular, by a 21-year-old swimmer named Rikako Ikei.

Ikei fell ill with leukemia in 2019 and was expected to miss the Olympics even if he recovered. But the postponement of Tokyo 2020 for a year due to the coronavirus opened the door to an unlikely return.

The history of Ikei, outgoing and fierce competitor, has made it a meeting point for those who want the games to continue despite the coronavirus, if only to fulfill the dreams of athletes who have been preparing for the competition for five years. .

Coronavirus cases are increasing in Tokyo and only 31 percent of the Japanese public have received a first dose of the Covid vaccine. After initially saying that spectators would be allowed, the Japanese government changed its mind this month and decided to hold the event behind closed doors.

“To tell the truth, there are a lot of Japanese who don’t want to celebrate the Olympics,” said Akira Hayashi, a sports science professor at Tokai Gakuen University. “But having her active is something that really generates excitement.”

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 for one year due to the coronavirus opened the door for the unlikely return of Ikei © Charly Triballeau / AFP via Getty Images

When Ikei left for a training camp in 2019, it was considered one of the best medal prospects. At the Asian Games last year, he dominated freestyle and butterfly sprints, returning with six gold and two silver medals.

Tomoaki Tasaka, a former swimmer who now writes about the sport, said that Ikei is known for her excellent technique and high body position in the water, allowing her to beat significantly taller opponents. “He loves racing and he hates losing,” he said. “If she breaks a record, she is not the type to stop there, but always looking to break it again.”

Then Ikei fell ill. Her coaches rushed her back to Japan, where she was diagnosed with leukemia. “I still can’t believe it,” he told his followers on Twitter. “But if treated properly, a full recovery is possible.”

Throughout 2019, Ikei underwent grueling treatment for cancer. “It was exhausting to even get up,” he told Japan’s NHK broadcaster this year. “He was so sick he felt tired even being alive.”

But at the end of the year, she was released from the hospital. He returned to training and in August 2020 he started swimming in races again after an absence of almost two years.

“When I saw her return to competition a year ago, she looked like an invalid. She was so skinny – she didn’t look like an athlete at all, ”Hayashi said. “I thought the Tokyo Olympics were unimaginable and she would have to target Paris.”

But Ikei continued to improve and in February this year she finished second in the 50m freestyle at the Japan Open. In the Olympic trials, he did not reach the time limit as an individual, but he qualified for the medley relay.

Tasaka said the Japanese combined team is unlikely to be among the medals, but could set a national record and reach the final. “For her, swimming in the Olympics will really show what a human can accomplish,” he said.

Due to Ikei’s status as a symbol of Tokyo 2020, activists who lobbied for the cancellation of the Olympics began bombarding her with messages on social media, asking her to either withdraw or announce her opposition to the games.

His dignified response, refusing to take a position and calling out those who sent “very hurtful messages,” was a factor that allowed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to go ahead with the games when Covid concerns were at their peak in May.

“From now on I want to enjoy my progress a lot,” Ikei told NHK. “If I can show little by little how a person who has hit rock bottom has grown to this point, wouldn’t that be good?”

Your next step is Tokyo 2020. When you compete in late July, all of Japan will be watching.

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