Tianna Bartoletta: The 'big-ass step backwards' that won Olympic gold

By Amy LofthouseBBC Sport
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Tianna Bartoletta
Tianna Bartoletta is the reigning Olympic long jump champion

"Take one big-ass step backwards." The five words that helped win an Olympic gold medal.

Tianna Bartoletta rubs her hands together. Back goes the right leg, left arm outstretched. She pushes forward off her left foot, arms flying, legs getting faster, knees pounding, arms pumping.

That same left foot lands on the board and propels her into the air, her body still as she takes off before the arms and legs are pushed forward, every sinew straining for that extra inch, that extra something that will be the difference between gold and silver.

She lands. 7.17m. A personal best on the biggest stage of all, enough to crown her as Olympic long jump champion at Rio 2016.

"It did feel like things were wrapped up nicely in a bow at that moment," Bartoletta says, four years after winning the gold medal. "I probably could have walked away from the sport then and been extremely happy."

But that's not how it goes.

Slowly, Bartoletta would break down. The relationships she built fell apart. The mind that dreamt success began to play against her. The body which had served her so well started to break down. All the warning signs were there, unnoticed.

Then she listened, and this is what it said.

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Tianna Maddison was a low-key kid from Elyria, Ohio; book smart, slightly nerdy, quiet. "I was too smart for my own good," Bartoletta reflects. "I was still competitive so I would find things to be competitive about. I would sing or dance or perform for anyone on demand. I don't do that so much anymore but being dramatic and musical is very much in my blood."

Her mum was a dancer and a choreographer. Her dad was everything from a track athlete to a boxer. Bartoletta followed in their footsteps, playing basketball and volleyball at high school, as well as running track, but the girl who loved science was not dreaming of being an Olympic champion.

Bartoletta's dad told her she had to go to college, but he and her mum would not pay the fees. She was an honours student but she wanted to make sure she would have a place, and an athletic scholarship would shore that up. It was a case of eeny-meeny-miny-mo between sports - and track won by default. She studied and she ran and she jumped and by 2005, aged 19, she was in the World Championships long jump final.

Helsinki was Bartoletta's first major international trip. "It was really hard for a girl from Elyria to treat spending the summer in Europe and Helsinki as no big deal," she says. In her free time she played ping-pong and air hockey with her coaches and team-mates, went to the cinema, made playlists to keep her energy up.

She knew she faced a difficult task. The distance for qualifying alone was set at her personal best. "To even get out of this round, I'm going to have to jump the best I've ever jumped," she remembers thinking. "Once I got that in my head, that was the face and the intensity I had on day one."

Bartoletta, jumping at the Helsinki Words
Victory at the 2005 Worlds was Bartoletta's first major success

Bartoletta jumped a personal best 6.83m in qualifying, 18cm further than any other competitor.

Two days later, she listened to her coach tell her room-mate about how her life would change when she won her final. Eager to find out what would happen to her if she won, Bartoletta asked: "Coach, how will my life change?" The coach's reply? "You won't, but go out there and do what you can, buddy!"

Bartoletta was angry. So angry. She called her mum, who told her to watch Rocky IV, where Balboa avenges the death of his friend in the boxing ring.

She took all her anger out onto the track with her. She didn't just jump; she jumped further than the qualifying distance that had so intimidated her. She walked away as world champion. Her coaches sat her down straight away and tried to devise a plan for the future, about becoming a professional athlete.

But Bartoletta had something else on her mind.

"I was trying to convince my coach that I had earned French fries!" she laughs. "I wanted to get back to the Village because anyone who wins a medal gets to have this little informal ceremony with the rest of the team where they toast you. And I wanted those two things - I wanted my fries and I wanted my sparkling juice, because I was not old enough to drink."

Bartoletta got her fries, but not the Village party. Suddenly, it was all business.

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However, a loss of form and bankruptcy threatened to derail her career. She returned to the world stage to lead off the victorious US women's 4x100m relay team at the London 2012 Olympics, and finished fourth in the individual event. She then competed for the US in the bobsleigh later that year.

By the time the Rio Olympics came around in 2016, Bartoletta was like a robot. She deliberately fouled her first jump in order to show her coach, Rana Reider, how fast she was running.

"I'm going to run as fast as I'm going to run all night, and it's your job to get me on the board," she told him.

As one of the favourites, there was an audible gasp as she missed the board by a metre on her first attempt, but she and her coach knew what she was doing.

Reider gave her the immortal advice. She took a big-ass step backwards. She won. The overwhelming feeling was relief. "You're just grateful that you're the person that gets to have all of that struggle validated," she says.

"And then it turned into oh my gosh - I went from basically choosing my event by eeny-meeny-miny-mo to being Olympic champion. I just thought it was the most ridiculous, amazing story."

The photographs from the Rio Games show Bartoletta looking at her coach in amazement, hand over her mouth, as she realises she has secured the gold medal. On the podium, she is all smiles, tears of joy streaming down her cheeks as she raises her arms, then a clenched fist, to the stadium.

A year later, she was on the podium once again. There were tears. But this time, there were no smiles.

Tianna Bartoletta
Bartoletta's tears at the World Championships came after personal struggles in the build-up to 2017

"The London World Championships were in August 2017. In May that year, I had filed for divorce and basically ran from home. I was escaping what I believed was a toxic and, at times, abusive, situation," Bartoletta explains.

"When I got to London, I still had all of this dialogue in my head that I'd been hearing over the last several years; that I wouldn't be able to do it without this person, or without doing it exactly their way.

"To win that medal - of course, it wasn't gold, but to be there at all, to have given the effort I gave, knowing how I was feeling… I was on that runway with zero to give, emotionally. I think physically, I was the most prepared, but mentally and emotionally, I was on empty."

Speaking to the BBC in 2017, Bartoletta said she had contemplated "walking off a train platform" after her win in Rio. "I felt that I became a stranger to myself. It felt like I was just getting broken down and I just couldn't take much more of the negativity. My relationship with my mum wasn't very close to start with, so we were already at arm's length, but when this situation started to happen, I withdrew.

"Asking for help was the thing that required the most strength for me. It was one of the hardest calls I had to make because I had to ask people I didn't think were necessarily going to be there for me, because they hadn't been in the past."

Three months before London, Bartoletta left the marital home. Her best friend was coaching in Alabama, so it was arranged that she would go there on 1 May, the start of the professional track circuit season. From there she went on to China and Japan, hopping from one Airbnb to another, before returning to Arnhem, Netherlands, where she is based during the summer.

She describes the break-up of the marriage and the impact of the relationship as being like "the app you didn't realise was open that was draining your battery".

The divorce is now close to being finalised, which will allow both parties to move on. In a statement to BBC Sport in 2017, John Bartoletta said he would be "forever grateful" for being a part of his wife's success, adding he was proud of her and wished her the very best.

I became a stranger to myself - Bartoletta

It has been a tough journey for Bartoletta since she became Olympic long jump champion. She has struggled with what she calls disordered eating in the past, her science background mixing with her athletics in a damaging way. She describes athletics as a sport governed by physics, with body mass a variable that affects performance.

"Maybe at home it wasn't talked about in a healthy way," she says of her weight. "It wasn't coming from my coach but from people who were close to me, like pinching my arms, saying 'I don't know, it looks like you're going the wrong way' or showing me pictures of other athletes bodies, like, 'why can't you look a little more like this?' It's a very unhealthy situation to be in.

"There's some people who will just treat you like you're always an athlete but to me, it's a job. So at home, those people who claim to love and support you are continuing on, like, 'are you sure about that? Is that a good choice? Maybe you should only eat half of it? Are you sure? It just becomes too much. Way too much."

Luckily for Bartoletta, her team broke down the physics behind it, appealing to her inner science nerd. She knows what her optimal weight is and how to attain that goal in a healthy way. "I've only got to a better place about my weight in the last year and a half - probably [better] than I have been for the entire duration of my career."

Tianna Bartoletta
Bartoletta finally became Olympic long jump champion in 2016

In an ideal world, this would have been the start of her fairytale comeback, banishing the demons of her past to return to the top of the sport. But in 2018, a sprain in her left ankle ended her season early, and in 2019 it didn't fare much better. Bartoletta jumps off her left leg. This was the ankle that had propelled her to Olympic gold, and it was getting weaker. So she made the decision to switch to take-off from her right foot. It was a huge change - and it did not pay off.

Bartoletta arrived at her national championships ready to compete off her new foot. Her competitors were mostly college students. The reigning Olympic champion finished 17th out of 17 jumpers. "It was really awkward and uncomfortable and embarrassing, to be honest. Once that happens, your season is over," she says.

It gave her time to get her left ankle sorted out, so she travelled to the US Olympic training centre in Colorado Springs.

And then she passed out in reception.

Tianna Bartoletta
Bartoletta intends to defend her Olympic title in Tokyo next year

In late 2018, Bartoletta had noticed that her period had changed. It had gone from a predictable, four-or-five-day long event that was, as she says, "mildly inconvenient," to seven days, then "14 heavy, heavy days and only getting an hour out of a super plus flow tampon, then coming off of that and going right back into another cycle".

She first put it down to the stress of her divorce, and then to other factors. "The fact that I did some of my workouts so early, before breakfast, so was I hungry? Was I eating enough red meat? It was really hard to narrow down."

A few months before nationals, Bartoletta had received an email from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), who had noticed that her iron levels had been decreasing with each test she had taken. They had told her to see a doctor - Bartoletta remembers 'as soon as possible' being written in capital letters - but she was in Europe at the time and focused on competing. She put it off and off, until collapsing in the reception finally forced her to address the issue.

"It turned out I was severely anaemic," she said. "One of the specialists in Colorado said, I don't remember the exact number, but it was a solid number fewer pints of blood than the average person. He was like, where did the blood go? And I'm sitting there thinking wow, that's crazy… and then it dawned on me and I said, you know what, I know where it went!"

The majority of female athletes will have to deal with periods but the effect it has on their performance is rarely discussed. Bartoletta has begun to train smarter, with an increased awareness of what is going on in her body.

"The difference between what I'm able to do the week before, versus the week of, is drastic," she said. "I don't believe we're any weaker for having periods. I do believe it's important to be aware of it."

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Now based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bartoletta is a volunteer coach at the University of California.

Her medals and trophies are on a bookshelf "over there somewhere," she says, waving her hand into the middle distance. "It is not something I actually need to look at or ruminate on. They're a representation of things that I have had to do before and I now understand, as an adult, that you don't win medals the same way twice."

She is "absolutely aiming" to defend her Olympic title at the postponed Tokyo Games next year.

"I now believe I no longer have to just give my title away, but I can fight to defend it," she says. She feels brand new; "like that saying about the caterpillar. Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly".

"I'm so many things. I'm the multiple choice answer that's all of the above. Athlete, obviously, but also writer, and I would call myself a low-key advocate. There's a little bit of a rebel. I'm also a yogi. It's a fun line for me to walk - going from meditations, watching flowing water and relaxing to like, screaming in a gym trying to get the snatch off the ground. I love that.

"I'm still me, but different. Better."

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