Olympic Gold Medalist Tianna Bartoletta Reveals Painful Truths in Memoir
by Karen Rosen
Tianna Bartoletta reacts as she runs a victory lap after winning the long jump during the Oregon Relays on April 23, 2021 in Eugene, Ore.
Tianna Bartoletta was certain the memoir she was writing would be called “Gravity.”
After all, wasn’t she defying gravity in the long jump or using gravity to her advantage as a sprinter? Gravity also meant weight and importance, and Bartoletta had a vital story to tell.
“So, when I finished writing the book, it sounds crazy, but the book told me that its name was ‘Survive & Advance,’” she said, “largely because that is the strategy when it comes to championships that we use.”
Bartoletta, the reigning Olympic long jump champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion, said athletes don’t need to win the qualifier the day before the final.
“You just need to survive and advance to the next round, and then you put the performance of your life together,” she said. “I have all of these medals and titles because I got really good at doing that. And as I was writing, I saw that I was doing that in my actual life away from the track.”
“Survive & Advance” will be released June 8 by CG Sports Publishing and Bartoletta will host a Zoom launch party on June 13.
In her introduction, the 35-year-old writes that her memoir “is a story of a life spent running. My life has not been an easy one to live, and so ‘Survive & Advance’ is not an easy story to tell.” At the back of the book, two pages of resources dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide prevention, eating disorder support and fibroid awareness make it clear this is not a typical sports autobiography.
“It wasn’t a typical life,” Bartoletta said. “When it comes to the subject matter in the book, silence is what feeds the shame. Silence makes it difficult to move from survivor or victim into the thriving that I would like to do. And so the first step is to accept your life as true.”
Bartoletta said she can do that without sharing her story, but it’s important to here to be of service to other people.
“Maybe I can spare somebody else from walking into the same trap or doing it the same way I did,” she said. “Feel free to make your own mistakes, but maybe if I share my story, you can avoid making mine as well.”
Born Tianna Madison in Elyria, Ohio, she describes how her relationship with her parents deteriorated when her mother invited a classmate to their home for dinner despite Tianna telling her the boy was molesting her at school. That was “my last day as an extrovert,” she writes.
As an adult, she said her ex-husband John Bartoletta would hit her, took control of her finances and isolated her from friends. All the while, Bartoletta was competing and winning in public but privately suffering.
“During the writing, I had to relive some stuff I would have preferred not to, but it did allow me to process it in a way,” she said, “because now I had time and distance. Ultimately, in the end I think a lot of healing took place, but I’d be lying if I told you it was a complete healing process and I enjoyed it.”
Bartoletta said she wrote the book without a ghostwriter because she is a writer.
“I think I am more of a writer than I am an athlete,” she said. “And it was important to me to write this story, to own this narrative for myself, for every word to have been chosen and said by me because for so long I haven’t had a voice.”
Bartoletta said she did not send the book to her parents or her ex-husband before publication.
“There’s nothing in the book that will come as a surprise to my parents because they were there, and it’s all true,” said Bartoletta. “I could see if I was lying and presenting them unfairly, I would be more concerned, but we’ve done a lot of work since then and I think they understand and know how far we’ve come.
“We’re closer than we’ve ever been. In fact, I would go through that hell all over again if I knew it would end up with me having this kind of relationship with them.”
The latter portion of the book reads almost like a thriller, with Bartoletta plotting her escape from her Florida home without her husband finding out.
“That day was scary,” she said, “and I did the bobsled, so let me tell you, the adrenaline on that day was nothing compared to hopping into the back of a bobsled for the first time or crashing in the mountains in France. That day was putting one foot in front of the other, going through my checklist trying not to get caught, head on a swivel. That was the craziest day I have ever lived.”
Telling the World
In 2017, after winning the bronze medal in the long jump at the world championships in London, Bartoletta revealed on Instagram that three months earlier she had “run away from my own home. I had to decide which of ALL my belongings were the most important. I had to leave my dogs, I had little money, I still have no actual address, all to give myself a chance at having a life and the love I deserved – one that didn’t involved fear or fighting, threats, and abuse.”
After Bartoletta gave an interview to the BBC, she said John sued her for defamation. “That case was dismissed because the truth is the truth,” she said.
And yet Bartoletta said that meeting her ex-husband was also integral to becoming the “version of myself” that makes her proud. “I say to people jokingly that stuff I went through, that fire, just polishes and sharpens me into who I really want to be,” she said. “And it’s not a painless process, but it’s kind of worth it at the end.”
Still, Bartoletta acknowledges that the arc of her life been shaped by unlucky breaks, such as the high school student who fixated on her or a coach who helped her reach her potential and then took a new job far away.
“That’s the part that I find most exhausting,” she said. “It’s one thing to wreck the train when you’re driving it; it’s another to get derailed for things that aren’t your fault or in your control. That’s the hard part. And I think all of us can relate to that, too. I just feel like I have a little more than I’d like.”
Bartoletta was still married when she began writing her memoir, and that early version was more like a false start. She said it was “completely shameful because it just was not true.”\
Returning to it in 2017 with her newfound freedom, Bartoletta began taking writing classes. “This version is probably the third or fourth of the memoir and the first one that I am proud of,” she said.
She believes her fellow track and field athletes and fans will find the book to be an eye-opener. While Bartoletta goes into detail about training, meets and interactions with her coaches and competitors, there’s so much more than times run and distances achieved.
The Whole Story
“I want to be seen in my full context,” she said. “Most athletes are presented one-dimensionally, and we’re so complicated and complex, so I wanted people to actually see the stories behind the champions.
“Do you really know what that win means to them? Do you really know what that loss means? But on the other side, I wanted people to also know that I’m just human. I can do extraordinary things, but I am an ordinary human. The things in this story happen to all of us, or we know someone it has happened to. And the overall statement is you can do hard stuff. You can do amazing things. You can.”
Bartoletta also has a blog and released an earlier book called “Why You’re Not a Track Star,” which explores reasons why middle school and high school athletes aren’t performing up their potential.
While putting final touches on the memoir, Bartoletta has been competing this season in both the long jump and the 100 meters. Although she has not yet reached the standards to compete at next month’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track and Field, Bartoletta said she’s been told she has a bye into the long jump based on her gold medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“I am happy to be back healthy,” she said. “It would be awesome and perfect if I came out running personal bests and all that stuff, but I don’t feel like that’s the way it always works. Almost every time I do get out there, it’s a moral victory. Would I like to actually have legitimate victories? Absolutely.”
Bartoletta laughed. “I like to win. But I’m trying to just keep it all in perspective and keep showing up.”
She knows that her track career – punctuated by world championships in the long jump in 2005 and then 10 years later in 2015 – is winding down.
What’s next? Bartoletta has a Florida real estate license. She also wants to finish her molecular and microbiology degree. She hopes to stay involved in track and field as a leader or consultant, but not a coach.
And Bartoletta will definitely keep writing. “It makes me feel alive,” she said. “I love talking and sharing stories. I’ll try to figure out a way to help other people tell their stories.”
Bartoletta said she feels she is in a “privileged position to talk people through” traumatic situations “because I not only lived it, but I’m working my way out of it. And it’s good to role model that to people because that is a very dark place to be in. You really, really need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially if you can’t yet see the light within yourself.”