Ikee Rikako offering hope in the time of coronavirus

Tokyo 2020 postponement has Japan thinking 'what if' for leukemia-beating star swimmer

Don't call it a comeback. Not yet, anyway.

For Ikee Rikako, that will probably be Paris 2024, maybe be even Los Angeles 2028.

The girl who once held so much promise for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games-turned cancer survivor only returned to the pool on 17 March for the first time since being diagnosed with leukaemia. It was her first dip in 406 days.

"I finally got permission from the doctor to go to the pool", Ikee said through social media. "406 days! I can't begin to describe how happy I am and how good I feel. I'm so fortunate.

"The coronavirus is spreading all over Japan and the world. I plan to do my part in staying safe and healthy, and I hope the situation is contained as soon as possible".

Ikee's first swim was a small step towards full recovery, but it was also much-needed ray of positivity for the 19-year-old, and Japan, during a time when there is not a great deal of good news anywhere in the world.

For many athletes who were training to peak at Tokyo 2020 - like Ikee once was - Tuesday's decision to postpone the Games until 2021 in light of the coronavirus pandemic was nothing short of crippling.

The athletes will have to regroup and begin their preparations again - but only after the global crisis subsides, and there is simply no telling when that will be.

The It girl

Much like the COVID-19 that came out of nowhere to strike the planet, Ikee's career was de-railed so unexpectedly.

She obliterated the competition at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, winning six races en route to being named the Games MVP.

Owner of 11 national records and a radiant smile made in equal measure, she was destined to be a star at her home Olympic Games - but after feeling unusually breathless at a training camp in Australia in February last year, the leukaemia diagnosis shortly followed.

Last month Ikee resumed training. In her first interview since falling ill on 19 February, Ikee said she felt "lucky to be alive". Realistically, even with Tokyo 2020 being put off, the odds of her appearing at the Games in 2021 are stacked against her.

Rikako Ikee poses after winning her sixth Asian Games title in Jakarta
Rikako Ikee poses after winning her sixth Asian Games title in JakartaRikako Ikee poses after winning her sixth Asian Games title in Jakarta

Hope floats

Yet there is hope.

On Thursday, the Japanese Olympic swimming trials were cancelled after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government stepped up its efforts to contain the virus. Technically Seto Daiya, the reigning world champion in the men's 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, is the only one whose place is secure on the Olympic team.

In these surreal times of the coronavirus, some hope is better than none, particularly in Japan which has had to bear the first postponement of the Games in history.

Ikee is far from being all the way back. But despite being on the comeback trail for sightly more than a month, she is already offering her country - and perhaps the rest of the world - a positive example to navigate through these rough waters.

Hope.

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