Although realistic about her current standing in the swimming world, Japanese prodigy and leukemia survivor Rikako Ikee is determined to muscle up and impress at the world championships in July in Japan's Fukuoka as she pursues a path to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Ikee appeared at the 2015 and 2017 worlds as well as the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics before being diagnosed with the disease in February 2019. She made a miraculous recovery to make the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and will now make her third appearance at the worlds in butterfly and freestyle.
Her May return to overseas competition produced disappointment, however. Ikee failed to win in her favorite race, the 50-meter fly, at the three Mare Nostrum meets in France, Spain and Monaco, but was happy to rejoin the international scene.
"It was really fun. It was a tough tournament as I failed to perform well, but I gathered good experience alongside many swimmers who will be competing at the top level at the worlds."
"I had amazing communication with swimmers from overseas and could interact with those who developed while I was sick. I was happy to be recognized."
Ikee, who set two national records at the 2018 Mare Nostrum, has yet to reproduce the kind of performances she was once capable of.
"Those are my results, but it feels like a different person produced them," she said. "Because other Japanese swimmers did well this time, I felt so weak and empty. I even think, 'I could do that before' or 'What if I didn't get sick.'"
"I still have my technique but there's no power. I'm spinning my gears because of that mismatch, and can't swim the way I'm best at, so it's troubling."
At the Tokyo Olympics, Ikee opted to only enter relays due to her physical condition at the time. But after winning four events at April's national championships, she will return to the worlds in individual competition.
"I'm really fired up emotionally. Since the nationals ended, I've been thinking I absolutely want to produce the goods and give my all," she said. "I'll get some proper training under my belt and get physically bigger before the tournament."
While stating she has a specific target in Fukuoka, Ikee, who won six gold medals at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games where she was named the MVP, is looking at the bigger picture. Medaling in Paris next year has always been her principle goal since the setback.
"I want to reach the 50 fly final, but I'm really worried after the Mare Nostrum, where my starts were unbearably slow," she said, "The areas I need to fix are really clear. It'll be difficult if I don't improve (my starts)."
"First and foremost, I aim to make Paris. I managed to take part in relays in Tokyo but felt it wasn't fun without competing in individual events. Beating qualifying times is my first target, I have room to grow in terms of building my physicality, and believe in that potential heading to Paris."