Swimming

Japan's swimmers want to win for leukaemia-stricken Rikako Ikee

Japanese swimmers vow to do well in world meet to lift the spirits of their leukaemia-stricken poster girl

Japan's swimmers have promised to up their game at next week's world championships - to lift the spirits of ailing teammate Rikako Ikee in her battle with leukaemia.

The 19-year-old poster girl for next year's Tokyo Olympics was diagnosed with the illness earlier this year and is continuing treatment back in Tokyo.

Asian champion Yui Ohashi, one of Japan's biggest medal hopes in South Korea after taking silver in the 200 metres individual medley two years ago, said yesterday that Ikee was on the mind of all the swimmers.

"It's a huge blow that Rikako can't be here to fight with us but she's battling hard too," Ohashi told AFP.

"Hopefully, she can see us giving it everything to produce the kind of results that will give her courage and the added motivation - that I'm sure she already has - to return to competition."

Ikee shot to fame at last year's Asian Games, where she captured a record six gold medals.

But she tweeted in February that she had been diagnosed with leukaemia after experiencing problems during a training camp in Australia.

Japan's swim queen would have been a favourite to win 2020 Olympic gold in the 100m butterfly and a serious medal contender in the 200m freestyle in her home city.

Japanese coaches in Gwangju have spoken to the athletes about Ikee, revealed head coach Norimasa Hirai the morning after arriving in South Korea.

"Coach (Yoji) Suzuki has said in meetings it was important to fight hard for Rikako too," said Hirai.

"But knowing Rikako's character, she will be anxious about Japan's results.

"If we give everything we have, and hopefully come away with a few medals, it will give her a lift. But first we have to get the job done."

In the absence of Ikee and Olympic champion Kosuke Hagino, who has suffered an alarming dip in form since his Rio gold in the men's 400m individual medley, Japan's swimmers could struggle in Gwangju.

They finished 14th in the medal table in Budapest in 2017 with four silver and three bronze medals.

"I don't want to predict medal tallies," said Hirai. "I don't want to add pressure. But they're relaxed, they're enjoying the Korean food and they're and in good spirits."

While Hungary's triple Olympic champion Katinka Hosszu has not lost a major final in the women's 200m medley since 2012, Ohashi has medal chances in both the 200m and 400m.

"I'll need to be at 100 per cent," said Ohashi, who recently completed a spell of high-altitude training in Arizona.

"I'm trying not to overcomplicate things. I have to be aggressive - if I don't go out strong, I'll struggle over the second half of races."

Another potential hope for Japan is Ippei Watanabe, who holds the world record in the men's 200m breaststroke.

"I want to leave everything out there," he said.

"I want to come back with the gold medal, a new world record and a big smile on my face." - AFP

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