TOKYO: Leukaemia survivor Rikako Ikee must put her health first after qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, Japan swimming team-mate Ryosuke Irie said on Monday (Apr 5), warning the media not to overdo the hype.
Ikee clinched a place in Japan’s medley relay team at the trials for the COVID-19-postponed Tokyo Games on Sunday, just two years after being diagnosed with leukaemia.
The news was rapturously received in Japan and overseas, with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe both tweeting their congratulations.
But Japanese teammate Irie warned fans not to put too much pressure on the 20-year-old – who only returned to training just over a year ago – and cautioned the media against making her the poster girl for the Games.
“I was so surprised and happy for her, and I felt how hard she must have worked to get there,” said Irie, who qualified for his fourth straight Games on Monday by winning the men’s 100-metre backstroke in a time of 53.13 seconds.
“But you can’t let your guard down,” he said. “She has to look after her health first of all. It would make me happy if the media didn’t hype her up too much.”
Ikee was in tears after winning the 100-metre butterfly on Sunday at the venue where the Tokyo Games will be held this summer.
Her time of 57.77 seconds was not enough to clinch a place in the individual event at the Games, but it did make her eligible for Japan’s medley relay team.
Ikee – who was named MVP of the 2018 Asian Games after claiming six golds and two silvers – was hospitalised for around 10 months after being diagnosed with leukaemia in February 2019.
She resumed training in March last year, before returning to competition in August.
Ikee is one of several young swimmers who have already clinched their place in Japan’s Olympic team, and Irie, 31, was happy to join them on Monday.
“I’m very proud to be among so many great young athletes,” said Irie, who won two silvers and one bronze at the 2012 London Games.
“I think I’m raising the average age a bit by being there, but I think I can help the young athletes with my experience.”
Katsuhiro Matsumoto joined Irie in Japan’s team by winning the men’s 200-metre freestyle in a time of 1:44.65 – updating his own Japanese record.
Matsumoto comfortably bested Konosuke Yanagimoto, Kosuke Hagino and Kotaro Takahashi, who all qualified for Japan’s 4 x 200m freestyle relay team.
“I think I showed what I was all about,” said Matsumoto, who took silver at the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
“But times are just going to get faster at the Olympics, so I can’t be satisfied with the level I’m at. I still have room to improve.”
In the day’s other final, Kanako Watanabe and Reona Aoki both qualified for an Olympic spot in the women’s 100-metre breaststroke.
Watanabe, a former 200-metre breaststroke world champion, won the race in 1:06.51, followed by Aoki in 1:06.56.