This week’s Odds and Evens column for JAPAN Forward is about swimmer Rikako Ikee, who made her comeback last weekend after more than a year and a half during which she battled leukemia.


My column begins this way:

ODDS and EVENS | Rikako Ikee’s Swimming Comeback Inspires a Nation

By Ed Odeven

Rikako Ikee’s return to competitive swimming is one of the most uplifting stories in these difficult times.

Day after day, we are inundated with news about the COVID-19 pandemic. Grim statistics of the death toll from the coronavirus are among the daily reminders of the fragility of life.

And Ikee’s inspiring news made a big splash last weekend. Literally.

The 20-year-old leukemia survivor competed in her first swim meet in 19 months—594 days, to be precise—on Saturday, August 29. And she won her heat in the women’s 50-meter freestyle event at Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center.

How awesome is that?

Yes, there were tears of joy, too, during the Tokyo Swimming Association-organized meet. 

How could there not have been?

Ikee and the tight-knit Japanese swimming community at large celebrated this important step in her comeback. A plethora of similar messages celebrated her return to the pool in a multitude of languages on social media. The gist of those comments: “Welcome back” and “congratulations.”

Australian two-time Olympic silver medalist Madeline Groves, who swam at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, expanded on that theme.

“I’m so in awe of @rikakoikee to see her persevere through the ultimate adversity at such a young age, and then come back to racing is incredible,” Groves tweeted. “Wishing her all the best and hope to see her in #Tokyo2021.”

Despite a slow start to the 50 free, Ikee, who swam in Lane 3, picked up speed as the race progressed and finished strong at the end to earn the victory.

Looking back on the race, Ikee summed up her accomplishment this way, according to the Olympic Channel: “[With 15 meters left], I thought I might have a shot here and I just didn’t want to give in. … As an athlete, I didn’t want to lose.”

Ikee is pushing her body one race at a time and focusing her mind on her goals.

In the aforementioned heat, Ikee finished the race in 26.32 seconds, placing fifth in the timed final. Ikee holds the national record in the event (24.21). Moreover, she achieved one of her goals by qualifying for the Intercollegiate Championships in October by finishing 26.86 seconds or faster. (The night’s best time belonged to Runa Imai, who swam her heat in 25.22 seconds.)

“I never expected to finish first in the group,” Ikee told reporters. “I am moved by the fact that I could swim again in a competition. This is the first chapter of my second swimming career. I made a good restart.”

Mission accomplished. Ikee targeted a spot in the October meet and earned it. 

“I worked hard over the past year, believing that I will compete in the championships,” Ikee insisted afterward, according to published reports. “I want to show people that I can fulfill my dream.”

Isamu Nishizaki, who serves as Ikee’s coach, agreed with her assessment. 

“I was surprised to see her swim this well after resuming her training [only recently],” Nishizaki said, according to the Asahi Shimbun. “She is blessed with natural talent, such as her strokes and the way she floats.”

Longtime Japan national team head coach Norimasa Hirai told JAPAN Forward that he was encouraged by the first phase of Ikee’s comeback. He confirmed that he was impressed with her perseverance.

“She sometimes seemed very nervous when swimming during the warmups,” Hirai observed. “In the race, her starting strength was weak and her first 15 meters were not very fast.

“[But] she started accelerating with the same strokes as before. … Her swim and time were better than expected. I was able to hear applause from the venue and had a very good time as everyone was celebrating Rikako returning to the pool.”

What else did Hirai see from his poolside view?

“Some athletes have lost sight of their goals because the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed,” Hirai observed. “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].

“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.”

Read the full story here: