Eleven years ago, the world was at her feet. As a recently crowned world long jump champion in Helsinki, it seemed that Olympic success was inevitable. But the path has been much rockier for US athlete Tianna Bartoletta than imagined. A mid-career slump left her questioning her future in the sport.
It’s these lows that made her victory in Wednesday night's long jump final at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games all the sweeter.
“To win this medal after all that time, I’m really proud,” said Bartoletta. “To still be here and to be a more mature athlete, a more serious athlete and more deliberate in my approach to the sport, it’s very satisfying.”
It wasn’t always that way. After her success in Helsinki in 2005, her form slipped in subsequent years, so much so that by 2009 she stopped competing in the long jump altogether.
“I was overweight and not training properly,” she said. “I couldn’t jump anymore and it got to be embarrassing to once upon a time be a world champion who could not jump over six metres, so I stopped jumping and focused on sprinting.”
Her new focus reignited her career and she earned a place on the US world-record-breaking 4x100m team at the 2012 London Olympic Games. The 30-year-old remarked that it was the faith those closest to her had in her potential that helped her to turn her career around.
“I got a lot of encouragement from my husband and coach. If you just do everything right, get your diet right, do weights properly, do everything on the track, do that extra core session, you can come back.”
Escaping the comfort zone
Her return to long jump came from an unlikely source. After London 2012 she took a break from athletics and experimented with bobsleigh, winning a bronze medal at a World Cup event at Lake Placid in late 2012. Having improved as a 100m sprinter, she couldn’t translate that speed over to the long jump and a fast penultimate step, but bobsleigh pushed her out of her comfort zone, enabling her to make the necessary improvements.
“To launch myself into the back of that bobsleigh was actually the penultimate step I didn’t think I could still do,” she said. “I had more incentive to nail it because the sled was accelerating down the hill. So with that repetition I was able to come back to the long jump because I had reacquired that muscle memory and learned how to get that penultimate step faster.”
Since then she hasn’t looked back. In 2014 she jumped over seven metres for the first time in her career with a 7.02m at the IAAF Diamond League in Oslo. Then last year she claimed her second world title, ten years after her first, with a 7.14m leap in Beijing.
However, Bartoletta felt she needed to make a coaching change if she was to make the next step, and after her triumph in Beijing she left Loren Seagrave to work with Rana Reider who is based in the Netherlands.
“I switched because my speed and technical form in the sprints was not where I wanted it to be and that’s my advantage in the long jump,” she said. “That’s what we worked on this year, getting my sprinting back together, and I carried that sprint technique onto the runway.”
The coaching switch has resulted in her spending a significant amount of time abroad in the Netherlands along with six-week warm weather training camps in South Africa.
“It’s kind of like being in a Rocky movie,” she said. “Going into the mountains and having to focus and knowing this is the only thing I need to think about. It’s a big sacrifice being away from home and my husband for that much time and having to live out of a bag, but it paid off today.”
And pay off it did. A personal best of 7.17m in the fifth round put her into first place, but she was made to sweat when defending champion and fellow US athlete Brittney Reese came agonisingly close with her final jump, falling just 2cm shy.
“I expect that from Brittney,” she said. “I never count her out. Every jumper has the ability to have an awesome jump. It’s just a great feeling to have a gold medal. I couldn’t control what Brittney jumped today. I just had to execute each one of my jumps and focus on all the things that I can control and do a good job with them.”
Inspiring off the track
Away from athletics, Bartoletta has set up a programme helping to empower young women to build successful lives by enabling them to broaden their experiences and make educated decisions. “At times you can be discouraged over the smallest things. I don’t have a lot of free time right now, but eventually when things calm down I will have a personal development mentoring programme for young girls," said Bartoletta. "I think it’s really important to have those good role models and those relationships to help you fearlessly go after your dreams.”
But for now, she has more immediate tasks to attend to. Having finally achieved the Olympic title that has eluded her for so long, there is no time for immediate celebrations. “After winning the competition, my next thought was: ‘I have to be back in the morning for the relay’. My work here is not yet finished. I still have one more job to do for my country, and then after that celebrations can begin.
“I’m going to have a pizza. I’ve been on a strict diet for about 10 months now so it will be nice to not have to think about what I’m eating.”
Nobody will begrudge her that.
James Sullivan for the IAAF