The FINA World Swimming Championships has had an endearing display of unity for a rival who has been fighting leukaemia.
Canada’s Maggie MacNeil shocked the sport by beating the untouchable Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjöström to the 100m butterfly gold medal with Australian Emma McKeon third, winning a bronze medal.
Sjöström was aiming for an unprecedented fifth title and fourth straight world championship gold to become the first woman to do so in a single event, Swimming World Magazine reported.
However, the second biggest shock of the FINA World Swimming Championships – just 24 hours earlier, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus stunned American Katie Ledecky in the 400m freestyle final to hand Ledecky her first international loss in a race over 400 metres in her career – paled when MacNeil, Sjöström and McKeon stepped onto the medal podium.
With the medals around their necks, the three swimmers lifted up the palms of their hands to reveal a message to Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee, who swam the fastest time in the world in 2018. She was diagnosed with leukaemia in February and has been unable to compete due to her health this year.
— Karen Pickering MBE (@Karen_Pickering) July 22, 2019
“Never give up, Rikako Ikee,” read the tribute, alongside two love hearts, as the three medallists held their hands out to the cameras.
“I hope really that she (Ikee) will battle this cancer. She is a real fighter and the real winner,” said Sjöström.
“What is swimming compared to what she is going through? I told myself that before my race: it doesn’t matter where I come because her battle is 50 times more than anyone else in this final.
“I really hope she will recover and come back and do what she loves. She loved swimming so much and I really think she will come back and fight this cancer.”
Canada’s MacNeil, who like Ikee is 19, said she and McKeon were easily persuaded by Sjöström’s idea to reach out to the Japanese star with an emotional display during the medal ceremony in Gwangju, South Korea.
Ikee was the poster girl for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games after she won a record six gold medals at the Asian Games in 2018.
She tweeted in February that she had been diagnosed with leukaemia after experiencing problems during a training camp in Australia and has subsequently said that battling the disease has proved “thousands of times harder” than she expected.
Ikee would have been a favourite to win 2020 Olympic gold in the 100 metres butterfly and a serious medal contender in the 200m freestyle in her home city.
— Australian Swim Team (@DolphinsAUS) July 22, 2019