Sarah Sjostrom, Emma McKeon, Margaret MacNeil, and Nathan Adrian show their support for the Japanese swimmer
"Never give up."
That was the message scrawled on the hands of Sarah Sjostrom, Emma McKeon and Margaret MacNeil in support of their rival Rikako Ikee, who is currently battling leukemia.
The message has now been received.
Acknowledging the swimmers' touching tribute from the FINA World Championships podium in Gwangju, the Japanese teenager replied on Instagram, saying 'Thank you. Love you guys', alongside some heart emojis.
The message was a poignant one in the midst of the most important swimming meet of the year: Winning is not always the most important thing in life, even for a professional athlete.
Instead of enjoying the limelight for winning world medals which they had earned, the women chose instead to use that moment to show solidarity with their fellow swimmer.
“What is swimming compared to what she is going through?" Olympic gold medallist Sjostrom said afterwards.
"I told myself that before my race: It doesn’t matter where I come because her battle is 50 times more than anyone else in this final.
“I really hope she will recover and come back and do what she loves. She loved swimming so much and I really think she will come back and fight this cancer.”
Before Ikee was diagnosed with the illness in February this year, she had been in sublime form.
She even beat the great Katie Ledecky in the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships 200m Freestyle, and as Japan's 100m Butterly national record holder would very likely have been swimming against Sjostrom in this final.
One athlete that understands to an extent what Ikee is going through, is Nathan Adrian from the United States.
The 30-year-old was diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2018, but worked his way back to international swimming following his surgeries, helping USA to gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay final on Sunday.
"I’m inspired by her transparency through this, and her willpower to get back into shape," he told us after the victory.
"I’m not exaggerating when I say she inspired me get back in the pool. Every cancer is a little bit different and she’s gone through a little bit more treatment than I did so my heart goes out to her and I wish her all the best."
12 - 28 Jul 2019
FINA World Championships - Gwangju