Qualifying for Olympic trials, Tokyo 2020 hopes float for Ikee Rikako

Having beaten cancer, Rio 2016 Olympian now beating the odds, meeting qualifying standard for Japanese national championships in April as improbable comeback continues.

By Shintaro Kano ·

Ikee Rikako on Saturday (23 January) took a significant step toward making a potential odds-defying appearance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by meeting the qualifying standard for the national championships in April, which doubles as the Japanese Olympic trials.

In her first competition of the Games year, Ikee finished fourth in the 100-metre freestyle at the Kosuke Kitajima Cup in Tokyo but her time of 55.35 seconds comfortably qualified her for the nationals, which she needed a 56.53 to appear in.

In fact, Ikee met that time in the heats when she clocked 56.16. She was 0.87 off the pace of winner Sakai Natsumi in the final.

Ever since coming back from a year-long bout with leukemia in August, Ikee had maintained that she was eyeing to make her Games return at Paris 2024 which seemed like the sensible, realistic projection.

After all, it was only on 17 March that Ikee was even cleared to swim again. She was lucky to be alive, the Tokyo native had said.

But Saturday's performance just may have changed that conversation, lighting a flicker of hope for what would be the mother of all comebacks on the Olympic stage.

While the Tokyo 2020 qualifying time in the women's 100 free of 53.31 - and a 54.42 to make the 4x100 relay team - remains challenging, it is not beyond reach for the 20-year-old Ikee, who is the Japan record-holder in the race at 52.79.

In speaking with reporters after the race, Ikee kept it real but equally and clearly, the competitive fire had been stoked.

"I wanted to qualify for the nationals and I'm glad that I did but I finished fourth again", the Rio 2016 Olympian said. "It's really frustrating.

"I wasn't too fast or too slow. It's not a bad time for the year's first race but this event is personal to me because I set the Japan record in 2018.

"I'm happy though that I was able to compete in the 100 free at this meet. It's a tough loss but I can only get better from here".

Ikee will have one more warmup before the nationals, the 4-7 February Japan Open at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, the Olympic swimming venue.

The field the 2018 Asian Games MVP will be up against in the nationals final will be similar to the one she faced Saturday.

"Today made me realise just how tough the competition is", Ikee said. "I need to focus on each and every race and not get ahead of myself or start thinking about the Tokyo Olympics.

"I have to think about beating the swimmer next to me, I have to pay attention to the details. Only then will I see the results I'm aiming for.

"I have to stay calm - and train".

Resurgent Hagino

Olympic champion Hagino Kosuke continued his revival, pulling away in the last leg to win the men's 400 individual medley by more than two seconds (4:13.91).

Looking noticeably broader across the chest, Hagino said he had been working on his strength since sweeping both IM races at the previous nationals in December.

If Saturday is any indication, Hagino seems to have clearly snapped out of his post-Rio 2016 slump. He will compete in the 200 IM on Sunday.

"I pushed myself from the start so I definitely felt it late in the race but my body felt good, I was able to execute the race plan and it was a productive day", he said.

"There's definitely some fatigue but through all that, I'm finding a way to do what I set out to do. I added some bulk over the winter and my body's changed. I'm happy to have swam the race I swam today".

Hagino led from start to finish, blitzing through the first 200 in 1:59.85 and will keep setting the tone in races going foward.

"This is the way I have to race looking ahead to April. The first 200 has always been my strength and I think I can definitely build on this race".

In other notables, 2019 world silver medallist Matsumoto Katsuhiro added the 100 free title to the 200 he won on Friday, touching the wall in 48.58.

Another worlds runner-up, Ohashi Yui, captured the women's 400 IM in 4:37.22. Ryosuke Irie breezed to the men's 200 backstroke crown (1:57.11), capping a double alongside Friday's victory in the 100.