On Tuesday, June 8, three-time Olympic gold medalist Tianna Bartoletta published her highly anticipated memoir Survive and Advance. The sprinter and long jumper has been a long time blogger, ever since escaping a toxic and abusive marriage in 2017. Her blog posts, often widely shared on Twitter, showcased her talent as a writer and provided glimpses of her history and hardships, but Survive and Advance is the whole story, raw and real.
From high school track to Olympic gold medals, family trauma, abuse, medical emergencies, and how Bartoletta has continued to survive every single day—it’s all there. We caught up with the newly minted author about what writing the book was like.
Women’s Running: When did you decide you wanted to put your story out there in this form and how did you decide that now was the time to do that?
Tianna Bartoletta: You will always hear me say that I’ve always been a writer. Like always. For longer than I’ve been an athlete. So I’ve always known that I wanted to write books.
When did I decide I wanted to write a memoir? I think when I realized my life was very interesting. There was a point where I had to make this mess meaningful. This has to mean something. And the way that I tend to find meaning is by sharing it with others. Even if one person says, you know what, when you said that one thing to me, that one time, it made a whole complete difference in my life. That gives my pain meaning. Because otherwise what was the point?
And I’m not immune to the pity parties. I throw some epic pity parties of one for myself. And then I remember, you know what, there’s a reason that this is happening and then I blog about it or I share the story with someone else. And I’m reminded that some of us go through these things to turn around and lift other people out.
I started writing it [the memoir] in 2015, honestly, but stopped writing it because the first draft was just a complete lie. It was just revisionist history. I was still married and I couldn’t tell the story that I needed to tell.
WR:Who would you say you wrote the book for? Who do you hope reads it?
TB: As cliche as this is going to sound, I wrote it for myself first and foremost, because just what I experienced while writing, just the ability to process and kind of work through some old trauma and see things more clearly because of the distance that time provides. When I finished writing, when I literally wrote the last word, I was like “Oh, this was for me.”
But I do hope that anyone who has gone through anything, so that covers a lot of us. Someone who is an athlete that’s trying to do something very difficult, and that doesn’t mean elite athlete. That means the person training for the 5K, the person coming back from an injury, like the table tennis athlete with a bum elbow, anybody who has to come back from something, this book is for them because we sit back in our rooms in the dark and we wonder how the hell we’re going to pull it off.
This story is something happens, you come back. Something else happens, you come back and it’s just, you can do it. You can put one foot in front of the other and next thing you know, you’re surviving. I mean, all of us have survived 100% of the things we thought we wouldn’t survive to this point. And it’s just a reminder of that.
WR: What was it like for you putting that whole story down on paper?
TB: There were parts that were fun to write and remember and relive and laugh about. And to be completely honest, there were chapters that I completely skipped. There were parts of my story that I completely omitted the first time around. And this is why I’m so grateful for my best friend, Charles Ryan, because I read the book out loud to him before I submitted it to my publisher. He looked at me and he was, “For real, you’re just going to not talk about that.” And it was just too hard. I don’t want that on paper. I don’t want people to see that part of me.
I am really uncomfortable with that. And he was like, “This is why you’re writing.” And so when I thought the book was complete, I actually had to go back and write some of the more painful moments more truthfully or things that I tried to get by with just the sentence in passing, “Oh yeah, that happened. He did that.”
I had to go back and really get in there and to be completely honest, I fell apart several times feeling very re-traumatized. I had a lot of nightmares during the writing. Writing was like therapy, but it also required therapy to get through it at the same time.
WR: Are you nervous at all about how it’s going to be received when it’s out in the world?
TB: By readers? I think there’s a little bit of that, but I think the thing that calms me is that no matter how it’s received, it’s just the truth. It’s just my life. And so there’s really nothing I can do about it. I promised myself that I would not ever say, “I hope you like it,” when I gave someone a copy of the manuscript or the book because it’s my life. And it’s not up to me if you like it or not.
You can comment on the writing and you can say it was well presented. But I told myself that I would not allow myself to say, “I hope you like it.” And so I guess to answer the question more directly, I hope you appreciate the effort and a labor of love that it was to put this out in the world. After that everything else is out of my control.
WR: There’s one conversation in the book between you and your Dad that stands out. And I’m wondering how you feel in hindsight. He almost warns you, “You’ve been chosen and set apart. So don’t try to fit in. It will only make you miserable. People will be drawn to you.” Do you feel that sentiment ended up being true?
TB: It did actually end up being true and I wish I had understood it more in the moment and I would have saved myself a lot of heartache, a lot of volatile situations, but yeah, it did. I think we all have people in our lives that just have that thing and we just want to be around them all the time.
And I just didn’t see myself that way as you probably could pick up in the book. And so when that would happen, I just was so clingy, ‘Oh my God, someone likes me.’ Surprised, like it was rare but it wasn’t. I should have understood my own power more and you can’t protect your power until you understand it. That’s what my Dad was trying to set me up for and I just didn’t get it at that time.
WR: How did you land on the title, Survive and Advance?
TB: So the entire time since 2015, this memoir was called Gravity. I mean I had #Gravity and then variations Overcoming Gravity and Defying Gravity. And it was called that until the Tuesday I submitted the manuscript to my publisher and I was going back through the Word document and just kind of making sure it wasn’t a complete mess. As you know, first drafts are kind of awful. But I was going through and I just would catch a couple of paragraphs here, there, skimming. And when I got to the end, the book told me that that wasn’t its name anymore.
The title Gravity did not fully encompass what the story was. And I had seen a few different times that I actually was using the phrase Survive and Advance. I use it in high school because of the regionals and district regional state system. I used it in the Olympic trials. And it just was the craziest thing because I never believed authors when they said their book speaks to them but at the end, the book was like, “My name is Survive and Advance.”
WR: What does “survive and advance” mean to you?
TB: You do what you’ve got to do to get to the next level, next round, the next thing. Right? So that doesn’t always mean your best performance ever. Even if it means you got in by the skin of your teeth, you got in and that’s sometimes all you need to do. And so on the track, I’m notorious for barely making it out of qualifying on the long jump and then winning a medal the following day. It doesn’t matter. You just need to survive and get to tomorrow. And so in my life, I just feel like I’ve got that part down. Get to tomorrow. Survive this so that you can move forward. And maybe it’s not a leap forward, maybe it’s just a baby step forward, but you’ve got to survive first to give yourself a chance at advancing. So that’s what it means.
WR: Was there anything surprising you learned about yourself or about your relationships while you were writing the book?
TB: Oh yeah. I think my mom, that was one of the biggest ones for me because we’re obviously no longer estranged. Since 2017, our relationship has just blossomed in ways that I didn’t imagine and didn’t think I even wanted or needed when we did come back together. And as I was writing this book, I was just like, “Oh damn, I see you. Okay.” And of course, some of the things that happened between us were awful, but my capacity for empathy is different as an adult woman. I think it healed a lot for me to write it and I wanted to make sure that every character that is in this story was presented pretty fully. I mean sometimes there’s a clear villain, but I also shared other moments when it wasn’t that way. And for my mom, just making sure I wrote that complete picture of her really allowed me to stop replaying the tape in my head that she didn’t like me.
I saw her so much more clearly in the writing. And I just remember when I was done writing because they actually haven’t read it. I was advised by my writing coach to not let the people close to you read it because they’ll give you input and want to change it and say, “Oh, I don’t remember it that way. Maybe you can add.” And, no, this is your story and your recollection. But I told her it was finished and I remember telling her thank you. I understand and I love you and I know you love me, which is a question I had had hanging over me for so long.
WR: You mentioned that there were parts you really enjoyed writing. What was your favorite part to write?
TB: I loved writing about the high school stuff because as an adult, I only was remembering the traumatic parts and then sitting down to kind of write the timeline of the track side. Just the funny stuff that I did and just the stupid things that happened or that I tried to get away with in high school. And it was just fun to remember. It was “Oh, you were so dumb.” And that was really fun for me to write and remember, because I don’t have a team anymore. I don’t even have a training group. And it was just fun to look back on those times.
WR: Speaking of training, you’re obviously heading into this Olympic year in a very different place than the previous years. Has this book helped you kind of close those previous chapters and look forward to this next Olympic year differently?
TB: This one’s a tough one to answer because the healing process has not been linear at all for me. I just recently kind of hit a valley. Physically, absolutely. I feel like I surprise myself on a regular basis in terms of what I do in training. But mentally I’m still kind of struggling with, “Can I do this or am I enough?” Just the insidious residual effects of just mentally going through it for so long. I’m trying to rewrite and overwrite those tapes, but it’s very hard. And I think it’s coming out in my performance that I’m still very much unsure and like kind of beat down. There’s a lot of pressure and I wonder, “Can I get back and can I do this?”
Survive and Advance is our latest book club pick! Sign up for the Women’s Running book club here (available to Outside+ and Women’s Running members) and join the discussion.