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Japan schoolgirl swimmer set to melt hearts in Rio

Japanese schoolgirl Rikako Ikee, who melted the hearts of a nation when she burst into tears on qualifying for the Olympics, is set to make a big splash in Rio.

Having just turned 16, the butterfly and freestyle specialist will compete in seven events at next month’s Olympics after bursting onto the scene at last year’s junior worlds in Singapore by completing a double in the 50 and 100 metres butterfly.

Ikee backed that up by becoming the first Japanese woman to break the 54-second barrier in the 100m freestyle earlier this year before her emotions bubbled over at the national championships, which doubled up as the country’s Olympic trials.

The Tokyo native, who has been tearing up records for fun over the past year, added the final touches to her Rio preparations by setting a new Japanese best in the 50m fly last weekend.

“I really wanted that record,” said Ikee, who will swim the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle along with the 100m butterfly and all three relays in Brazil. “I’m gradually getting to feel ready for the Olympics.”

Kyoko Iwasaki famously became an overnight media darling in Japan after the pint-sized breaststroker won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games six days after her 14th birthday.

Asked about her own whirlwind rise to fame, Ikee insisted she was close to top form after suffering something of a let-down after sealing qualification for the Olympics.

“I felt a bit tired after qualifying,” she told reporters. “But my times have started creeping back up. I want to make sure I get to Rio in peak condition.”

Ikee won legions of admirers for sobbing uncontrollably at the national trials, lifting Japanese fans after swim king Kosuke Kitajima had failed to qualify, signalling the end of his storied career.

“I don’t know if I’ll be in the position in Rio to feel that happy or not,” Ikee told AFP. “I can’t imagine yet what it will be like there.

“But as long as I can perform to my full potential and set personal bests, I’ll be able to give myself a pat on the back,” she added.

“Even if you’re the top swimmer in Japan it doesn’t guarantee you getting into the world’s top 10 so hopefully I can make the finals (in Rio) and take it from there.”

Japan will be hoping for a strong showing from its swimmers in Rio, led by Kosuke Hagino, a gold medal contender in the men’s 200m and 400m individual medley and a decent tip for the podium in the 200m freestyle.

On the women’s side, world champion Kanako Watanabe will be a threat in the 200m breaststroke, although she could be pushed hard by team mate Rie Kaneto.

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