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How a Japanese swimmer beat leukaemia to qualify for the Olympics

Swimmer Rikako Ikee's world came crashing down in 2019 when she was diagnosed with leukaemia. But she fought back to qualify for the Tokyo Games

Rikako Ikee after winning the women's 100 metres butterfly final at the national swimming championships at Tokyo in April. (REUTERS)

Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee does not really expect to win gold in the two events she will race in at the Tokyo Games but that does not matter. After surviving leukaemia, just being on Japan's Olympic team at a home Games is a victory in itself.

Ikee, 21, was diagnosed with leukaemia in February 2019 and while her treatment in hospital was far tougher than she ever imagined she was determined not to let it defeat her. "This is dozens of times, hundreds of times, thousands of times harder than I thought," she wrote on Twitter a month after her diagnosis. "I've had many times where I haven't been able to eat for three days or more. But I won't give up."

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The road to recovery was difficult but her persistence paid off and after battling back to fitness she returned to competition in August last year.

That was just the beginning.

Ikee then won four titles at Japan's national championships in April and while she failed to make the cut to compete at the Olympics in an individual event she claimed berths in the 400m freestyle relay and 4x100 medley relay. "I didn't have words to describe how I felt and I'm extremely happy," said Ikee, who lost as much as 18kg during treatment. "I recalled all the tough times I went through, but I was thrilled to be able to come back here."

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A Tokyo native, reportedly born at home in a water birth, Ikee was encouraged into physical activity from an early age by her mother and she began swimming just before turning 4, begging to follow her older sister and brother, who were both swimmers.

By the age of eight she was taking part in national swim meets and at 15 she broke records at the World Junior Championships. A year later, she swam in seven events at the 2016 Rio Olympics but did not medal. In 2018 she really hit her stride, winning six gold medals at the Asian Games and taking two more silvers in relays, becoming the first woman to be named Most Valuable Player at the event.

But everything came crashing down early in 2019 when Ikee fell ill at a training camp in Australia and was diagnosed with leukaemia after returning home for tests. After leaving hospital in December that year, Ikee switched her Olympic hopes to Paris 2024, but the novel coronavirus pandemic changed things.

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With Tokyo 2020 postponed, Ikee's hopes of representing Japan at a home Olympics were rekindled and in April she clinched her spot at the Games. Ikee then marked her 21st birthday on July 4 by being part of the 200m freestyle relay team that set a Japanese record.

"I don't know if it's a Japanese record or a world record, I just felt from my heart that I'm a really happy swimmer," she said after being handed a birthday present following the meet. "I tend to cry easily so of course I was in tears. And I felt 'oh, it's so nice that I lived.'"

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