The sight of an athlete in tears on a podium is not a rare one in sport. But Tianna Bartoletta has said the World Championship long jump bronze that she won in London was so much more than a medal.
In an emotional social media post, made just hours after the final, Bartoletta revealed that she had been homeless for the past three months, having run away to give herself a chance at a life without “fear or fighting, threats and abuse”.
While her husband John Bartoletta says the divorce they are now going through is “amicable”, Tianna Bartotella tells BBC World Service about what she says was the biggest gamble of her life.
‘I felt that I became a stranger to myself’
Bartoletta, who won gold at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, struggled with her form in the early part of this season and was suffering torment away from athletics, too. There were things that I loved in the beginning that I completely walked away from. I just lost sight of what I wanted.
Other people would say ‘oh, that’s just what it took to be elite, it was a sacrifice, she’s just the ultimate professional’ but really, it was just me withering away.
I lost my personality. I felt that I became a stranger to myself. I didn’t trust myself to make the right decisions. It felt like I was just getting broken down and I just couldn’t take much more of the negativity. It got so dark last season that it got me contemplating walking off a train platform in front of a train. It just started to feel that I had no way out of the feelings of frustration and shame.
Last season, I wasn’t competing very well until my trials in July. To deal with that on top of what I thought was an overwhelming personal situation… I felt like I got no break from the universe and it was so tempting to just call it quits.
‘It’s hard to ask for help’
For Bartoletta, reaching out to friends and admitting that she needed help to change her situation was a difficult step.
My relationship with my mum wasn’t very close to start with, so we were already at arm’s length, but when this situation started to happen, I withdrew and was isolated from friends and family.
My personality completely changed, and the most difficult thing was that while all of that was going on was that I was still being successful on the track.
Asking for help was the thing that required the most strength for me. A lot of people look at me and they’re like: ‘you’re such a fierce athlete’, ‘you’re such a strong woman’, so it’s hard to ask for help, right? It was one of the hardest calls I had to make because I had to ask for help from people I didn’t think were necessarily going to be there for me, because they hadn’t been in the past.
When I first reached out, it wasn’t to leave – it was just for the emotional support, to get a second opinion whether this was normal or if other people were going through this.
And then once I started to understand, because they were my mirrors reflecting my situation back to me, I was able to see that I needed to move on.
‘You are not alone’
Bartoletta has been renting rooms to live in across Holland – where she trains – via a website. She does not regret speaking out about the struggles she has faced.
This has been my therapy – sharing this story with you, sharing the Instagram post, blogging. It has kind of been my way of healing.
What I love about this, even though it’s incredibly uncomfortable for me to do, is that the responses I get are not just ones of encouragement, but people telling me their stories.
It validates my hurt a little bit in a way that says ‘OK, you were strong enough to make it through’, even though at times I didn’t think that I was. For this person, to hear from you, that they can do it too. The most important thing is, you’re not alone. You know that, but you don’t know it in your heart. You can be strong, or weak and it’s not a reflection on you as a person. You’re not any less of a person because you can’t get out.
It’s a very difficult situation, It’s complex, it’s confusing, and hard for a lot of people that aren’t in one to understand. But take the time you need to look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘you’re worth more than that’. And even though it is going to be scary, just keep making those decisions and you’ll strengthen that muscle and it will become a little easier and lot less scary.
‘I’m figuring it out’
After making the decision to start afresh, Bartoletta threw herself into her training to refocus.
I think that that is one of my biggest strengths as an athlete – I’m mentally tough and I knew that I could put all of this in a box and deal with it later.
I’m no stranger to traumatic situations and bad situations unfortunately so this is something I knew I would be able to kind of handle. When you’re at practice, you’re at practice and you’re safe, this is what you need to do… in a strange way, it forced me to be present because that was the only way I could to get through. When I sit back and allow myself to think about the what ifs, it gets overwhelming and I freak out a little bit, but I’ve just been one foot in front of the other.
This [World Championships] was the finish line for me. The thing that I’ve been focused on so much till now, I’m a little bit lost again. Because I don’t have that routine to fall back on but I’m figuring it out.
In a statement to BBC Sport, her husband, John Bartoletta, said that in their time together they “made an incredible team” and that he would be “forever grateful” for having been a part of her success which included three world championship gold medals.
He said that it was his understanding that they were going through an amicable divorce, that he was very proud of Tianna and wished her “the