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Musical Gold – Desirée Henry

As Team GB starts to limber up for the games, we spoke to Olympic medallist sprinter Desirée Henry about the role music plays in her life and her sport. Like many athletes, for Desirée music is an important tool in her training.

British record holder and bronze medallist at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in the 4 × 100m relay, Desirèe Henry was also nominated to light the cauldron at the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Nowadays, when she’s not winning the BBC’s Question of Sport, she’s training hard to get selected for the postponed Tokyo games.

It must have been difficult to find motivation during this time. How important is music to your routine?

Music has been the number one thing helping me stay motivated throughout my sessions, especially in the absence of training partners. It’s quiet, and sometimes, when you’re left with your thoughts for too long, it can get a little bit overwhelming. But music allows me to warm up and get the job done – and at the same time, not put that pressure on myself, and just enjoy what I’m doing. When I’ve finished doing a set of A-skips or other drills, I think, “Let me do some two-steps to whoever is playing right now”, then focus again. I don’t know what I would do without having music, especially during lockdown.

When you’re finding a training session difficult, are there any songs you turn to?

I listen to a lot of Chris Brown from the 2000s, one of them is “Run It”, and others from the Exclusive album. Any song that mentions or references running, movement or being tired helps me continue my workout. There’s that song “Loading” by Olamide, it goes “I can’t feel my face no more, I can’t feel my legs no more”. I get to sing along to my reality. Even that other recent song by Mooski, where it’s like “She’s a runner, she’s a track star.” But there’s no particular song that gets me through a real tough session – that’s more of a mental thing.

Do you find music is just about improving your performance or something more complex?

Music has an impact on the quality of my warm-up. If I’m listening to a slow song, I know the sharpness of my drills is not going to be there. Physically, it’s important for me to listen to a high-tempo song that matches the heart rate and the frame of mind I’m trying to get to, especially because the warm-up is the longest part of my sessions.

And what about when it’s competition time?

I use it to get me hyped and for reassurance that everything’s going to be okay – that what I’ve worked towards will come and I’ll perform to my maximum. Meek Mill and Rick Ross’s “Ima boss” is the first song that comes to mind, it gets played at every single competition. Competing is a battlefield and you have to be able to tap into something to perform at this particular location and particular time. Sport is such a mental game too. When I’m standing on the starting line, people see us athletes staring down the camera, but over and over again, I’m singing, “I’m a Boss, I call the shots”. Music isn’t just listening to beats; when music has positive messages that people can relate to, that’s where it becomes so powerful and impactful for athletes like myself.

Which three songs are essential to the competition playlist?

I have been using the same playlist since 2011, it’s attached to good memories and good performances, I just add songs along the way. However old those songs are, they still get me hyped like it’s ten years ago. I also feel like I can’t take out any songs, I wonder if it’s superstition. It takes a lot for a song to make the competition playlist compared to my everyday playlists: it’s a privilege.

Three essential songs? Obviously, “Ima Boss”, Kanye West’s “Stronger,” “That don’t kill me, can only make me stronger” and the final song would be Stormzy’s “Shut Up”. He says, “Try say he’s better than me? Tell my man shut up”. That’s the mentality you need to have going into a competition. You ARE the best, whether or not you are statistically or on paper, you’ve still got to believe you are.

What do you listen to away from the track?

I like listening to gospel music, the Kirk Franklins and Fred Hammonds, the beats are still energetic compared to hymns. With my upbringing, being a Christian raised in a Catholic school, you’re always aware of God being around. There’s also the chilled vibes of Sza and Ari Lennox. When I’m at home, I want to feel comfortable and relaxed. I don’t really want to be thinking about training. If I hear a song that’s too hyped, I’ll start thinking, “Gosh, am I meant to be warming up?”.

What are you most looking forward to for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics?

My preparation has been so different this time around compared to 2016. I know it sounds cliché, but I’m looking forward to representing my country. Training facilities and training partners were taken away, all those things that would usually help athletes reach their goals. So if I’m able to make the team and earn that selection, it would mean so much more.

KAESHELLE RIANNE