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She is a three-time gold medalist. A three-time world champion. But long jumper and sprinter Tianna Bartoletta, 34, has stood on the world’s most prestigious podiums also as a survivor of an abusive marriage, homelessness, and suicidal thoughts.
It wasn’t until the 2017 world championships in London, with a bronze medal hanging from her neck, Bartoletta sobbed tears of relief. She finally felt free to tell her story: In the three months leading up to the competition, she had run away from her home, with nowhere to go, to escape a five-year marriage, “to give myself a chance at having a life and the love I deserved—one that didn’t involve fear or fighting, threats, and abuse,” she wrote at the time.
“I took a huge gamble blowing my life up in such an important year for me career-wise,” she continued. “But it was about time for me to see that I was worth it. I was worth it.”
Two years later, Bartoletta has emerged not only still a contender on the world stage, but a voice for many who have found comfort in her vulnerability and strength in her convictions. Writing has become not just a form of therapy, but part of her power, she says. She started her blog, Tianna Bee, in 2017 as a channel to reclaim parts of her life that she felt had been lost—her story long controlled by outside forces like her ex-husband or the media; her identity masked by her medals.
Writing, she says, is where she shows who she really is and rekindles a love of storytelling that she developed as a child.
“I got tired of being this untouchable person who’s strong all the time, who always wins, who doesn’t have a backstory that’s not fabricated by somebody else,” she says. “It’s made me healthier even though it’s uncomfortable to share sometimes, but I’ve seen how it’s given people the opportunity to be more authentic about their own stories.”
When Mary Cain came forward with allegations of emotional abuse against her former coach Alberto Salazar, it was Bartoletta who responded with one of the most-shared commentaries on the subject. After all, she could explain the nuances of such experiences better than most—and although she is sponsored by the brand, Bartoletta was unafraid of voicing her displeasure with Nike’s response to Cain’s allegations, which tried to discredit Cain by pointing out she had sought to return to Salazar in 2019.
“And that line, let me just come right out and say it, was f*cked up to include,” Bartoletta wrote. “That line was included as if to say, ‘if it was as bad as you say why did you want back in?’ I’m going to say this once…no I won’t, I will hammer this home repeatedly if I must: This is what the cycle of abuse looks like.”
And it’s not only subjects and issues that hit home so personally to Bartoletta that she’s willing to take on. She shares her opinions on hot topics in the sport, too, like when the international governing body announced it would begin cutting some events that they deemed “unpopular” to spectators from Diamond League meets, which are the most lucrative competitions for most athletes.
“There’s no content calendar,” Bartolleta says. “Usually I see something while I’m scrolling through Twitter and my fingers tingle and I have to write. We have one opportunity every four years to show the world that we’re a sport worth watching, supporting, participating in—we’re only showing in-fighting right now because our federation isn’t listening to anybody but the men around the table in a boardroom—and that’s a major problem and the larger issue.”
No doubt the Olympic year will give Bartoletta plenty more fodder for her blog, which will also serve as a channel to process her quest to defend her glory at the Games, where she is the reigning long jump gold medalist and member of the defending 4 x 100-meter relay. She is in a far different place than she was in 2016 and welcomes the opportunity to compete unencumbered by personal emotional turmoil.
“I will be approaching the competition mentally healthier,” she says, giving credit to her creative pursuits for helping her get there. “All I can do on that day is show how well I’m prepared and get out of my own way. That’s not the spirit I carried competitions in the past.”
This profile was first published in the January/February 2020 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Front Runners: 20 Power Women of 2020,” which celebrates 20 elite female runners who are giving power new meaning, and a new image. You can see the full list of honorees here.