On a sunny Friday afternoon during the last weekend in February, before stay-at-home orders and facemasks and furloughs, I watched three-time gold medalist Tianna Bartoletta practice the long jump at UC Berkeley’s Edwards Stadium. The YTT-200’s focus was as sharp as the spikes on her shoes as she sprinted down the track and sprung into the air, seemingly weightless, before softly making contact with the sandpit. The key, she told me, is accelerating into the takeoff instead of slowing down to jump. “You gotta be crazy,” she says. “You gotta feel the fear and do it anyway.”
It’s a sentiment Bartoletta, who took home two gold medals from Rio in 2016 (long jump and 4×100-meter relay), has experienced before, particularly during the lows that have punctuated her successful 15-year track and field career. She won her first world championship in the long jump in 2005, the summer after her sophomore year in college, but didn’t earn her second until a decade later.
The latest example of Bartoletta’s fear-be-damned mentality was starting to train for this past June’s Olympic trials in February—by her own account, five months too late. An ankle injury and emergency surgery derailed her 2019 season and kept her off the track until the week before we met. She was only just easing back into her limited training schedule of sprinting, jumping, and weight-training sessions three to four times per week.
At 35, Bartoletta knows this will most likely be her last Olympics, and as the reigning champion, she feels immense pressure to defend her title. But that stress won’t deter “the USA’s Sprint and Long Jump Comeback Kid.” Her yoga practice, a tool that keeps her sane and grounded during intense phases of uncertainty, is an advantage she has over her competitors. “Going to the Olympic trials is like going to the Hunger Games,” she told me. “This is my fourth time entering that arena, and there is a lot of dread. But the mat is where I generate a lot of the momentum and energy I need to bring to go out and win medals.”
Girls Rule the World
Bartoletta’s capacity for hard work and intense competition are traits she says she and her two sisters inherited from their parents. “My mom made sure that we understood that as females, we had to work twice as hard as our male counterparts,” she says. “And then as black females, we had to probably work double that just to get a foot in the door.” Bartoletta has been involved with sports since she was 12, but she didn’t get serious about track until her junior year of high school, when her dad told her that she’d need to get a scholarship in order to attend college. She dropped volleyball and basketball to focus on her best sport—track—and earned a scholarship to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Her freshman year, however, any signs of greatness she’d shown in high school were replaced by mental blocks that trumped her physical performance. That spring, when Bartoletta attended the national championships, she was a mess. “I got my butt whooped. I was scared. I was intimidated. I punked out of being awesome,” she says. “And my coaches were really upset because I didn’t score any points.” A few weeks later, at another meet, a coach from the men’s team approached her. “He told me, ‘Tianna, you have to commit to that first step. Once you initiate the jump, that’s it. It’s kamikaze out here—you have to understand that once you’re up there, there’s no coming back.’” Something inside her clicked, and when she jumped that day, she cleared 6.60 meters, a distance that would have won nationals two weeks prior.
“Everything they were telling me I was capable of, I totally was capable of, but I hadn’t gotten there mentally yet,” Bartoletta says.
That same year, she went to the Olympic trials for the first time. Although she took eighth place (only the top three get to compete in the Games), the experience of competing alongside her track and field heroes lit a fire inside the then-18-year-old. She fully committed to the sport. The following year she won the world championship in the long jump and, a few months later, signed a pro contract with Nike.
Two years after her first world championships win, Bartoletta was having trouble sleeping, and someone suggested she try Yin Yoga. “It was like a gateway drug,” she says. Next came Yoga Nidra and meditation. “Really good yoga teachers do what I call dharma drips. They teach you the philosophy when you’re not looking,” she says. “Now I use yoga for everything—to wake up, to sleep, to show up for training.” In 2018, Bartoletta embarked on her 200-hour yoga teacher training at Love Story Yoga in San Francisco. “I just wanted to learn as much about the practice as I could,” she says.
In hindsight, the timing couldn’t have been better. In July 2019, while Bartoletta was in training at Papendal, the Olympic Training Center in the Netherlands, her health took a turn. She experienced dizziness and was physically and emotionally exhausted. Part of her believed it was just a natural consequence of pushing herself as an elite athlete. That is, until she got an alarming set of emails from a doctor associated with both the World Anti-Doping Agency and World Athletics, which oversees Olympic track and field hopefuls. They’d discovered something abnormal in her blood work: She was severely anemic. Elite athletes should have a level of ferritin (a blood protein that contains iron) around 40; hers was 5. “They were like, ‘Go to the doctor right now. These levels are bad,’” Bartoletta recalls. But she didn’t listen. Instead, in July she flew to Iowa where she took last place at US nationals. Six weeks went by before Bartoletta finally saw a doctor in Colorado, who misdiagnosed the cause of her anemia as heavy menstruation and put her on iron infusions. By December, Bartoletta couldn’t get through her regular training sessions: “I felt like I was dying,” she says. “My heartbeat was erratic, and sleeping was like going into a coma—it was hard to wake me.” Frustrated and exhausted, she demanded to be seen by a gynecologist at the US Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. That doctor discovered she had a noncancerous fibroid tumor in her uterus that was causing severe blood loss and anemia. If left untreated, her doctors said, she was weeks away from organ failure and one intense training session away from an actual coma. Bartoletta had emergency surgery that night and a blood transfusion two months later.
It was a devastating blow to her shot at another Olympic gold. “In a normal year, the work you do from October through March is the work,” says Bartoletta. “Only fine-tuning and polishing can happen during the competition season.” But for six weeks following surgery, she wasn’t allowed to train. “I just cried and cried,” she told me in February. “I wanted to be able to put up a damn fight to defend my title. Now it feels more like I’m Miss America, and I know I have to give my crown to someone else at the end of the year rather than fight to keep it.” But lessons she’d learned through yoga helped her stay grounded and accept the discomfort of her reality. Every day, she practiced pranayama and some form of gratitude, and meditated on the mantra “Everything is as it should be.”
“The Bhagavad Gita is like, ‘Look, kid, you’re not even entitled to the fruits of your labor, so keep showing up and keep doing work,’” she says. “That kept me going.”
Grace Under Pressure
In early spring, Olympic uncertainty was escalating with the rise of the covid-19 crisis. By mid-March, training facilities globally were closing and drug testing had ceased, but no announcement had been made in regard to the Games—even the athletes were left in the dark.
Finally, on the morning of March 23, Bartoletta was scrolling through her social media feeds when she saw the headline: The Olympics were postponed until 2021. Many athletes, including Bartoletta, expressed understanding at the unprecedented move, but also heartbreak.
Ever the Comeback Kid, Bartoletta chooses to view the delay as an opportunity to embrace the present. The postponement, she says, is a chance to strengthen her body, to make up for the time she lost to injury and illness: “I wasn’t interested in my Olympic title going to someone else because of things I couldn’t control. It’s just not the way I wanted to go.”
“People will never fully grasp the level of perseverance it takes to do what she does at the level she does it,” says Bartoletta’s coach Charles Ryan, who’s also her housemate. “It would be unimaginable if everything was right in her life, and for her to accomplish what she has in the face of years and years of difficult traumas and setbacks—she is the strongest person I know.”
Today Bartoletta is not only cherishing the extra training time but also her body and all that it’s been through. “There’s a moment in yoga class when we rest in Savasana with our right hands on our hearts and our left hands on our bellies, and we say, ‘I’m grateful for this body.’ This body of mine had done so much for me, but it wasn’t until this moment that I appreciated it enough,” Bartoletta says. “I wasn’t in awe of it enough. Every body is a work of miracles and magic and science, and it’s perfect in whatever form it manifests itself, and that is what I have learned this year.” And she’s going to use these lessons she’s learned to be at the top of her game for the next Olympics whenever they may be.