Rikako Ikee One Year On: ‘Leukemia Fight Was Big Turning Point In My Life’

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Rikako Ikee - Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Rikako Ikee, of Japan, has marked the anniversary of her leukaemia diagnosis with an interview in which she says her recent therapy for leukaemia marked the turning point in her life.

“I think of all the lessons it has taught me. I hope so many other people can take courage from my example of one healthy person. This has been the big turning point in my life.” – Rikako Ikee

The 19-year-old butterfly and freestyle ace was one of Japan’s big podium hopes for the home Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this July until a year ago, when she was diagnosed with leukemia.

Now back in training on a steady build up to Paris 2024, Ikee told a TV audience in Japan that although she gave out positive vibes after diagnosis, vowing on social media to fight the illness, she soon fell into despair from the nausea and pain caused by anti-cancer drugs.

Ikee received a special sorority message from butterfly friends and rivals during the World Championships she was forced to miss last year: Maggie MacNeil, the new champion, had “Never Give Up” written on the palms of her hands, while Sarah Sjostrom and Emma McKeon devoted a palm each to her name:

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Emma McKeon, Maggie MacNeil, Sarah Sjostrom – ‘fly aces send heartfelt wishes and pay tribute to the absent Rikako Ikee on the podium at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Such sentiments were most welcome but Ikee told interviewer Shuzo Matsuoka at TV Asahi (translated by the Kyodo news agency):

“I couldn’t bear to hear noise, I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to watch TV. I wanted to die. If I hadn’t believed it would be temporary, I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. But then, as I turned the corner, I could go out and eat out, and that joy was unbelievable.”

Ikee was discharged from hospital in December and returned to school at the start of the year. When asked by Matsuoka about the loss of muscle power owing to treatment and a lack of training, Ikee laughed and said she’s been happily shopping for clothes she previously couldn’t wear.

The support of her family and friends throughout the most challenging time of her life had been critical to Ikee’s recovery, she said but there were times when she felt unable to share her pain with them. There was light in the darkest hours: they had forced her to take a hard look in the mirror, she said:

“How could I have felt that way when such enjoyment in life was possible? It’s a miracle that I’m alive, a miracle that I’m here. I never once thought, ‘If only I hadn’t gotten sick.’ Instead I think of all the lessons it has taught me. I hope so many other people can take courage from my example of one healthy person.”

“This has been the big turning point in my life.”

Rikako’s Journey:

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