Tianna Bartoletta Ready For Long Jumps Again

After a couple of rough years, Tianna Bartoletta is ready to defend her Olympic long jump title. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

The second in a series of articles originally intended as part of our Olympic Trials Women’s Long Jump Preview. With the Trials and Olympics now postponed to 2021 by the COVID-19 crisis, we present this series as a current look at a U.S. wheelhouse event whenever the Olympics come round, no matter what the year.

THE REINVENTION OF Tianna Bartoletta continues. The reigning Olympic long jump champ has hit some rough patches in the last two years, but is excited—make that extremely excited—about jumping as soon as she can find a meet in this time of unknowns.

After her Rio gold—and the USATF title the next year followed by a World Champs bronze—Bartoletta had an ’18 season that ended with a badly sprained left ankle at a July meet in Hungary. “I got treatment and the physio and the rehab and thought that my ankle would be ready to go for the 2019 season. And it just was not, it did not heal.”

The joint got so bad that when she returned to the Gyulai Memorial last year, she had to jump off her right foot. “I was really tired of struggling and for things not going my way,” she explains. “And so as an act of defiance, I switched jump legs so that I could continue to see the season through. I didn’t want to quit.”

Her less-than-stellar 17-7½ (5.37) did not bode well for her next meet, the USATF Championships. There she finished 17th and last. “I would go ahead and describe it as awful,” she says of her ill-fated campaign.

“At the end of that season I went to Colorado and I ended up getting PRP [platelet-rich plasma therapy] on my jump leg. So my actual original jump leg is 100% now.”

However, she was dealing with physical issues much more serious than a sprained ankle; it turns out that one key reason it did not heal on schedule was that her body was starved not just for iron, but for blood itself.

“I knew on a cellular level I was dying. Like you could just feel it,” she says. She tried training through it. “I knew if I kept on that path, one of those times I would not get up. I could feel it.” She actually collapsed when she was in Colorado Springs last November to get her ankle treated. Not only did tests reveal severe anemia, but she had been losing blood. Doctors found a large fibroid tumor in her uterus; the condition was life-threatening. Surgery followed the same day.

The ordeal “made me understand and embrace the fact that there’s more to life than competition and training. After the surgery, my body needed time-to-heal time that I didn’t really have based on the original calendar.” Yet she couldn’t help but hear the siren call of the sport. “Of course, the mental monster takes over and it’s like, ‘Well, you’re not dead now, so do you want to try?’

“I shouldn’t have been surprised because I always show up that way when my back’s against the wall. That’s what happened.” Bartoletta went to work as soon as she was able. “I was gambling,” she admits. “I was still turning up at the track and still training… That gamble did not work well. I was not recovering well from workouts and was not in a good situation.”

Her doctors told her that she simply didn’t have enough blood in her body to continue training unless she got a transfusion, “which I really pushed back against because of the antidoping regulations.” But the medicos were adamant and she finally relented, stopping training for several weeks while waiting for the TUE (therapeutic use exemption) process.

“After that I was basically cleared to train. Now the doctors, they were like, ‘Cross your fingers, pray, but doubt that it’s going to work out for you.’” She laughs—now. “They were like, ‘Temper your expectations because this situation you’re in, it’s very hard to overcome.’ I didn’t really want to hear that but I needed to hear that because you need to understand the gravity of the situation especially if the likelihood of failing is high.”

Now, she reports, “I feel great physically. Over the last two years I haven’t had this much iron, this much blood. I didn’t even know how bad I was feeling because I didn’t know how good I could feel. With this COVID-19 pandemic, I was a little frustrated with the idea that I wouldn’t be able to maintain my fitness after working so hard to get back to this point. I really had to sit down and look at it differently and understand that it actually gives me the gift of time, because with each week I’m getting better physically.”

Living in the San Francisco Bay area, Bartoletta has written in support of the shelter-in-place order (she has a loved one with a compromised immune system). However, it makes training difficult. Residents are allowed to exercise outside, so the hill repeats weren’t a problem.

“And we can sprint pretty much anywhere, but long jumping—the technical events—that’s a little tricky. I trained at Cal, but that’s shut down. We drive around and find locations that might be open. I’ve gotten messages from followers I didn’t know were local, telling me which tracks to go to or which tracks they have access to. It’s been pretty awesome. So definitely a little complicated, but not as impossible as other athletes probably found.”

Bartoletta, like most athletes, is anxious for competition to resume after the pandemic passes. “My plan for March and April—before everything got wiped from the schedule—I had a competition every single weekend. You would have seen me at every college open meet on this side of the country just to get back out there. So if by chance the season comes back in some form, I will do my best to participate.”

When that day comes, the reinvented Bartoletta, now 34, will be unveiling the hitchkick technique that’s she’s been working on with coach and friend Charles Ryan. “It’s cleaned up a lot of stuff I used to get away with just because I was super-fast. Now I have the time to both add the speed and polish the technique that I’ve been working on here.

“It’s probably crazy, but I’m crazy. You’re talking to the girl who switched jump legs last year, so anything is possible.”