Whether you’re stepping out the door for an early-morning run or shooting around before a pickup game, even the most casual athlete knows how much the soundtrack in your head can shape your performance. Imagine you’re representing your country in a once-every-four-years (or five) event, and the stakes are raised just a bit. We caught up with eight of Team USA’s top medal hopefuls — some winners already! — to find out what’s on their pre-competition playlists. If they keep racking up gold in Tokyo, we just may have Lil Wayne, Cher, and “New Jersey club music” to thank.

Caeleb Dressel

Team captain; American record holder in the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle; four-time Olympic gold medalist, including 4×100 meter freestyle relay and 100 meter freestyle at the 2021 games so far.
Age: 24

Song he’s listening to right before he swims in Tokyo: “‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ by the Dropkick Murphys. I just watched The Departed and I love that movie.”

Go-to artists: “I’m into pop-punk, so my top hits are anything by Blink-182, the Menzingers, and Driveways. I have an enormous playlist that I just leave on shuffle, so you might also get modern-day pop and some Taylor Swift in there, too.”

Why he’s such a big Blink-182 fan: “I’m 24 and my older brother is 28. Growing up, I would just take whatever was in his library and I still do that. He’s super into Blink so that’s how I got into it.”

Most memorable song before the swim of his life: “At [the Olympic] trials when I made the team in the 100 free I was randomly listening to ‘Hot Blooded,’ the Eighties song [by Foreigner]. I have no idea why that song came on, but it did, and it sticks with me.”

Cat Osterman

2004 Olympic gold medalist, 2008 Olympic silver medalist, 2021 Olympic silver medalist
Age: 38

Go-to artists: “Pre-game I love listening to classic rock. AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi. I also have an obsession with Cher that most people don’t know about.”

Song that gets her most ready to compete: “I can belt out Cher’s ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ completely off tune but with passion and enthusiasm. It’s my good-mood song.”

Most recent addition to the pre-game playlist: “I’m very habitual and listen to the same stuff, so a lot of friends and my brother recommend music to me. I’ve just been introduced to [the band] the Score. I might be late to the party, but they’ve been added to my list.”

Tamyra Mensah-Stock

Reigning world champion, 68 kg (150 pound) division
Age: 28

Go-to artists: “My pre-match playlist is 33 hours and 46 minutes long. It’s mostly Christian and gospel music. It gets me pumped up and reminds me who I’m fighting for. My number-one artist is definitely [Christian hip-hop artist] Andy Mineo. I love him. My favorite songs by him are ‘You Can’t Stop Me’ and ‘Superhuman.’”

Song that gets her most ready to compete: “Right before I step on the mat, I’m always singing the song ‘John’ by Lil Wayne in my head. Of course, it’s the clean version that I’m most comfortable with. But that line ‘If I die today remember me like John Lennon’ gets me going every time I step on the mat. It’s just a reminder to go out and give everything I have in that moment.”

April Ross

Beach volleyball
2012 Olympic silver medalist, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist
Age: 39

What’s on her playlist: “It’s mainly made up of dubstep and electronic dance. Kygo and Avicii are my ultimate favorites. Even though their songs are a little more mellow, I include them because they make me happy. I stumbled on Kill the Noise opening for Seven Lions at a small concert in L.A. a few years ago and never looked back. I also have a lot of Skrillex, Flux Pavilion, Kotori, Excision, and NGHTMRE on there. I also sprinkle in some classic Korn, NIN, and Rage Against the Machine.”

Why she’s been curating an Olympic playlist for five years: “I started on my Tokyo playlist right after the Rio Olympics in 2016. Music is essential to my gym workouts. It increases your motivation and your power output. At the Olympics, I always fire up a few of my very favorite songs to get me fired up. It helps me turn my nerves into aggression. I’m always adding and deleting. The [two songs] that have stayed with me the whole time are ‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicii and Eminem’s ‘Til I Collapse.’ [And] I think the first song I put on my playlist was ‘The Drop’ by Bro Safari, and it’s still there, it’s solid. The last song I added is ‘Birdz (ft. Smokepurpp) by Wuki.’ 

Why EDM is her go-to:Something about the right kind of electronic music just speaks to my inner core. It matches my vibration when I’m working out or getting ready to compete. There is a definite correlation for me between performance and good warm-up music. I listen to a lot of playlists on Spotify and when something speaks to me, I add it to my Tokyo playlist. It’s really few and far between that I find a song worthy — it has to have a good drop! I’m pretty laid-back in general, and when I go out on the court I want to be ready to battle, I want to be aggressive and fierce, so I listen to music with that same vibe.”

Sydney McLaughlin

Track and field
Current world record holder in the 400 meter hurdles
Age: 21

Song that makes her run fastest: “If I had to step on the track and race I would turn on ‘War’ by Aha Gazelle [& Starringo].”

Song that’s been on her playlist the longest: “‘Team Lilman Anthem’ by DJ Lilman. I’m from New Jersey, and Jersey club music has helped me get hype since freshman year of high school.”

Newest addition to her playlist: “‘Miracle’” by Aaron Cole. I love listening to Christian artists who can mix dope beats with words that relate to everyday life. His vibe is dope.”

Carissa Moore

2021 gold medalist, women’s shortboard
Age: 28

What’s on her playlist: “A little bit of everything. Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Chris Stapleton, Enya, Norah Jones, Black Sabbath. I have so many moods, I’ve gotta be ready for everything.” 

Song that gets her most fired up before she gets in the water: “‘NDA,’ ‘ilomilo,’ or ‘Lost Cause’ by Billie Eilish. I love that she totally rocks to the beat of her own drum. She’s authentic and real and doing what feels good and right to her. It sparks that inspiration and joy in others. Her music and voice are super unique.”

Newest addition to her playlist: “‘Stay’ [by the Kid LAROI with] Justin Bieber. It’s such a great ‘get up and have a random dance party’ song.”

Song that’s been on her playlist the longest: “‘Desperado’ by Rihanna. [I’ve had it on there] since it was released. Has a great beat, bass, and just exudes confidence.” 

Grant Holloway

Track and field
Reigning world champion, 110-meter hurdles
Age: 23

Most important artist on his playlist: “James Brown. He is a classic that everyone likes.”

Newest addition: “[Funk and R&B band] the Brothers Johnson. I recently came across them at the suggestion of my father. He has somewhat good taste in music.” 

Why he prefers R&B and funk pre-race: “I’m looking for something to keep the mood alive.”

A’ja Williams

Age: 24

Vibe of her playlist: “I have a mixture. I love Nineties and 2000s R&B and hip-hop. I love old-school. I’ve got some up-to-date stuff but I’m a pretty old soul.”

Artist she listens to the most pre-game: “Probably Drake, because he can mix it up. If I want to be mellow he can do mellow; if I want to be hype he can get pretty hype. Either Drake or J. Cole.”

Most recent addition to her playlist: “Culture III by Migos. The [song that’s been on there the longest] is ‘Baby’ by Justin Bieber.” 

Why her pre-game music is so important: “I use music to rev me up sometimes, but majority of the time I use it to calm me down, because I’m probably flustered and nervous heading into the game. It helps put me in a mood to tune out the world.”


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