AUSTRALIAN swim star Emma McKeon yesterday broke down in tears during an emotional tribute to Japanese inspiration Rikako Ikee, whose incredible fightback from leukaemia has become the feel-good story of the Tokyo Olympics.
Two years after she was diagnosed with cancer and told there was no guarantee she would survive, Ikee has defied the odds to seal her place in the Japanese swim team for Tokyo.
Her comeback has already become a rallying call for Olympic athletes all over the world, but none more so than McKeon, who struck up a close personal relationship with the rising Japanese superstar when they were training together on the Gold Coast two years ago.
Asked how she felt when she saw Ikee qualify last week for the
Japanese Olympic team, McKeon struggled with her emotions as she tried to put it into words: “It was so exciting to see Rikako qualify,” she said.
“It’s actually amazing to see her come back from leukaemia and make an Olympic team.
“I think that would inspire anyone, I can kind of feel tingles right now just thinking about it.”
That was as far as McKeon got before she was suddenly overcome with it all and unable to continue, unable to finish the news conference at the Gold Coast, on the eve of the Australian championships.
A lion-hearted competitor in the pool, McKeon also wears her heart on her sleeve, and has been deeply moved by Ikee’s fight.
It was while they were training together at Griffith University on the Gold Coast in early 2019 that Ikee first began feeling unwell.
She underwent blood tests that proved inconclusive so was sent straight home to Japan where further tests revealed she had leukaemia, putting her swimming career on hold as she immediately underwent chemotherapy to combat the disease. The news of her illness rocked Japan, and was broadcast live on national television and splashed on the front pages of newspapers around the country, as millions of people, including political leaders, athletes and pop stars, sent her messages of support.
At the 2019 world championships, the three medallists in the women’s 100 metres butterfly – McKeon, Canada’s Margaret MacNeil and Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom – sent a special message to Ikee, written on the palms of their hands that they flashed in front of the television cameras, urging her to never give up.
Ikee saw the message on social media and said later it helped keep her spirits up during the worst times of her treatment, including when all her hair fell out and she was in so much pain she told herself she’d rather be dead.
In the same way that Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe became the enduring stars of the 2000 Sydney Games, Ikee and newly crowned Masters golf champion Hideki Matsuyama have become the faces of a Tokyo Olympics that has also defied the odds.