The Beat Goes On: Olympic Silver Medalist Jay Litherland Talks Swimming & Making Music
by Peggy Shinn
Ask Jay Litherland for his lucky number, and he might say 3. The 28-year-old Olympic silver medalist is one of triplets and has citizenship in three countries. His dad, Andrew Litherland, is from New Zealand; mom Chizuko is from Japan, where the triplets were born; and Litherland and his brothers gained U.S. citizenship during high school.
Now training in Arizona with coach Bob Bowman (of Michael Phelps’ fame), Litherland is aiming to swim in his third Olympic Games next summer — where he could earn two more medals, rounding out his collection at three.
Between now and then, Litherland is competing at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 in Santiago, Chile. And when he’s not swimming, he’s equally passionate about making music. No surprise, it also involves three (Litherland and his brothers).
Litherland first stepped onto the international swimming stage while still a student at the University of Georgia. In 2014, he competed at junior world championships and in 2015, at the FISU World University Games, winning gold in the 400-meter individual medley.
A year later, when his brothers Mick and Kevin — who also swam for Georgia — decided to try to qualify for the Olympic Games Rio 2016 for New Zealand, Jay could not join them. He had already competed for Team USA at an international meet.
But the brothers were not separated for long. Mick and Kevin missed making New Zealand’s 2016 Olympic Team, then joined Jay at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. While Mick and Kevin again missed Olympic qualification, Jay finished second to Chase Kalisz in the 400 IM, earning a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
“Just going to that meet, being with those high level athletes — I mean, Michael Phelps was on that team and all those guys I looked up to growing up — I was lucky, it was so awesome being part of that team,” remembered Litherland.
Reality hit in Rio. In the 400 IM final, Litherland finished fifth, just two seconds off the podium and almost five behind teammate Kalisz, who claimed the Olympic silver medal.
“I was super bummed,” said Litherland. “I wanted to redeem it. It was a huge motivator to keep going.”
Back in Georgia, the real work began. By the time Litherland graduated in 2019 with a degree in sociology, he was a nine-time All-American and at the 2017 world championships, he helped the men’s 4x200 freestyle relay team win a bronze medal. Two years later, he won his first individual world championship medal: silver in the 400 IM.
At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Litherland knew he was capable of standing on the podium. The extra year had helped him mentally prepare, and he had repeatedly visualized the Olympic 400 IM from start to finish.
In the final 50 meters of the race, Litherland surged from fourth to second, finishing runner-up to Kalisz.
To stand on the podium in Japan receiving an Olympic medal was a dream come true, and the Japanese press embraced him.
“They tried to speak English, and then I started speaking Japanese, and they’re like, “Whaat?!” he said. “People don’t really know that I’m Japanese with my name.”
After the Tokyo Games, Litherland returned to Georgia and took his first real break from swimming. When he dove back in last year, he knew he had to make changes. His long-time coach at Georgia, Jack Bauerle, was retiring. Litherland liked Bauerle’s coaching style and wanted to find a coach with a similar structure.
“The only person I thought of was Bob (Bowman),” Litherland said.
Bowman and Bauerle are good friends and have similar coaching styles, explained Litherland — “even the way (Bowman) writes practices is similar.”
In Tempe, Litherland is training with his 400 IM rival Kalisz, along with group of other world-class swimmers.
“It is the best group in the world, it’s crazy,” noted Litherland.
Asked if every training session is like a trials event, Litherland laughed: “I would say so.”
As for swimming the 400 IM — one of swimming’s most grueling events because it combines all four strokes and lasts over four minutes — the event comes naturally to Litherland, who came up through a club that emphasized swimming four strokes, not specializing in one or two.
“I’ve been swimming 400 IM my whole life,” he said. “The 400 IM is so awesome because you get to change strokes and not be so fixed on maintaining one speed with one stroke. Being able to change it and having different gears for different strokes throughout the race is the funnest part.”
Litherland, however, is less enamored of the 200 IM. “It’s a little too short,” he said.
Bowman has encouraged Litherland to add the 400-meter freestyle to his program. The Pan Am Games is the first international meet where he swims both the 400 IM and 400 free. Litherland finished fourth in the 400 free and competes in the 400 IM only three days apart.
The 400 freestyle will give Litherland the chance to qualify in two events for the Olympic Games Paris 2024 next summer — and potentially win his second and third Olympic medals.
“Fifth place (in Rio), silver (in Tokyo), two golds (in Paris)?” he added with a laugh.
When not in the pool, Litherland’s other passion is making music with Mick and Kevin. It all started in college when the triplets began freestyling in the car. And we’re not talking about freestyle, the swimming stroke. Freestyling is a free flow of musical creativity.
“You don’t read anything, you don’t have time to write,” explained Litherland. “You hear a beat and then you flow with rhymes and whatever comes into your head. It’s a state where you let the creative gods take the wheel.”
Soon, they began making beats and songs on GarageBand, writing lyrics to go with the beats — "tryna make whatever we thought music was to us,” Mick recently posted on Instagram.
A few friends also contribute beats, and then the brothers create the lyrics. Mick recently moved to Arizona, while Kevin, living in Japan, sends audio files with his verses, and then Mick and Jay put it together. They call their group TRiiiPSS — the three ‘i’s representing the triplets.
The popular swimming website, SwimSwam, described their music as “mostly a genre-bending mix of rap layered sometimes over electronic beats, sometimes over pop beats and sometimes over acoustic beats. Their base vocal sound combined with energetic rhythms is reminiscent of early-2000s NYC flash-in-the-pan band Bad Ronald, which released just one album before its members went on to other projects.”
In September, TRiiiPSS released two new songs, GnB and Sanko, available on most platforms (Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, etc).
“We started (making music) because it’s fun for the three of us,” said Litherland. “If fans or the people that hear it like it and relate to it in any way, that’s a huge plus.”
As for what’s next, Litherland is just going with the beat — with music and with swimming. He may be sticking around for the Olympic Games LA 2028.
“That’s the big question,” he admitted. “I still really enjoy swimming, so as long as that’s still there, I will continue to swim.”
In keeping with the triplet theme, Los Angeles would be Litherland’s fourth Olympics but third where he could win medals. And he could even strive to win three Olympic medals in LA.
“It’ll be 2028, I’ll be 32,” he said, then added with a laugh, “I might as well just start swimming the mile or something.”