Fans welcome Ikee back to world championships

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Rikako Ikee, center, cheers on the anchor in the 4×100 relay qualifying at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka on Sunday.

FUKUOKA — Fans greeted swimming star Rikako Ikee with thunderous applause in Fukuoka on Sunday as she made her first appearance at a World Aquatics Championships in six years.

Ikee did not qualify for the 100-meter butterfly but helped the Japanese team advance to the finals in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. On Friday, she will compete in the 50-meter butterfly.

“I heard a lot of cheers and applause,” she said with a smile after the relay qualifying race on Sunday. Ikee said she felt a tension she had never experienced before at an international championship.

Ikee revealed she had leukemia in February 2019, before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. After a nearly year-long battle with the disease, she competed in the relay at the Tokyo Games in 2021, but did not make the squad for the World Championships in Budapest last year.

She grabbed a ticket to Fukuoka by demonstrating her overwhelming swimming ability at the Japan championships in April. Fukuoka is her first world championships since Budapest 2017, where she competed at age 17.

A company employee from Hiroshima who watched Ikee in Fukuoka said he was “encouraged by her comeback to the world stage.” He said he registered as a donor with the bone marrow bank after she was diagnosed with leukemia.

“I hope she continues to swim as hard as she can,” the man said.

A 6-year-old from Kitakyushu cheered Ikee on with her parents. “I want to do my best in many things, too,” the girl said.

The girl’s father said, “I wanted to show my daughter Ikee’s never-give-up spirit.”