By Jack Tarrant
JAKARTA (Reuters) – Rikako Ikee is embracing the pressure of success after becoming the first swimmer to win six gold medals at a single Asian Games when the Japanese teenager roared to victory in the 50 metres freestyle on Friday.
Two years before her country hosts the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the 18-year-old, who became the first female competitor to win six Asian Games golds, is prepared for the weight of expectation on her shoulders after dominating her rivals in Jakarta.
“I don’t feel pressure too much,” Ikee told reporters after clinching her sixth gold. “For me, I gain power from fans cheering and from pressure. I make up my mind to work harder when I get more support and it becomes my motivation.”
Only North Korean shooter So Gin-man, who won seven golds and a silver at New Delhi in 1982, has won more titles at one Asian Games, but Ikee did match his overall mark of eight medals with two relay silvers in Jakarta.
Ikee’s exploits are all the more remarkable as they came so soon after a strong showing at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, where she won four medals to prove she can match the best the United States and Australia have to offer.
The Jakarta haul gave her 12 major medals, including seven golds, in just 16 days with Ikee now shifting her attention to the world records held by Sarah Sjoestroem, including the Swede’s 55.48 seconds mark in the 100 metres butterfly.
“I’m getting close to setting the world record but I haven’t done that yet. It is my goal and it is important to work harder to achieve that goal from now on,” said Ikee, whose national record time in the event is 56.08.
“If everything goes well, I think I will be able to set the world record,” the Tokyo native added. “I was able to record 56 seconds but haven’t recorded 55 seconds yet. I will be tough on myself to work harder, when I go into races and practise.”
Japanese swimmers enjoyed an impressive showing in Jakarta, matching China’s tally of 19 golds but edging out their rivals by 52 medals to 50 to prevent the Chinese from topping the standings for the first time since the 1998 Games in Bangkok.
The improvement will give the home crowd in Tokyo belief that they can expect a better return than the team managed at Rio 2016, where Japan picked up two golds in the pool and seven in total.
Ikee is leading a new generation of Japanese swimmers, including breaststroke specialists Satomi Suzuki and Yasuhiro Koseki, who will be tough to beat in home waters.
“The Japanese team is getting better every year,” Ikee added.
“We are getting closer to the world’s top countries like the U.S., Australia and China little by little. When you look at relay races, you can tell that. We will acquire skills individually to be ready for Tokyo 2020.”
Japan also possess world record holder Ippei Watanabe and Olympic gold medallist Kosuke Hagino in their ranks.
“Tokyo 2020 will be held in our country, so athletes are trying to get good results at the Olympics,” added Ikee, who will be taking a rest before the World Championships in South Korea next year.
“I think it is important to try to drastically challenge during this period, which is between the Rio Olympics and Tokyo Olympics.”
“All Japanese athletes are trying their best towards Tokyo 2020, so I think the good results will come along with it.”
The Japanese Olympic Committee have set an ambitious target of 30 gold medals at Tokyo 2020, almost double their existing record of 16 (Tokyo 1964 and Athens 2004).
However, should Ikee replicate her Jakarta form in Tokyo, that golden goal looks well within reach.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by John O’Brien)