Tianna (Madison) Bartoletta has been on quite a journey.
She’s finally coming home to Elyria.
The triumph and glory were brilliant — three Olympic gold medals and two world championships on the track. The struggles were heart-wrenching and life-changing — a five-year separation from her family and a “toxic” marriage.
She escaped her marriage in May 2017 and reconnected with her parents and sister for a renewed joy.
The reunion with the community happens this weekend, as the 2003 Elyria High graduate returns home for the first time in seven years for a series of celebratory events.
“I have an uncanny ability to survive hard things,” Bartoletta told The Chronicle-Telegram by phone this week. “As much as I would appreciate not needing to have that ability, I’ve been grateful that I do have that ability. I’m still here after all this time. I’m still standing, still competing. It would be nice to go a long period of time without having to test that, but I know that I am able to if it comes to that.”
One of the most difficult hardships was the estrangement from her family in Elyria.
During her marriage to Florida businessman John Bartoletta, which started in 2012, Tianna Bartoletta was isolated and had little communication with her parents, Robert and Jo Ann, or sister, Christina. The relationship was acrimonious, but healing has taken place since she left the marriage.
“Our family relationship is growing and everything is moving in the right direction,” Bartoletta said. “One of the interesting things I had to face after leaving John was I was on the damaged side by perpetuating a lie that everything was fine with me during that time. It’s been a roller-coaster ride for sure, but now I’m mostly on a level track, which is very welcoming for me.”
Back on track
Bartoletta’s greatest athletic achievements came in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in London and Rio, in which she competed in five events and took home three gold medals. The ultimate success followed a period of stagnation.
Her track career had plateaued between 2006 and 2012 after she won gold in the long jump at the 2005 outdoor world championships and an indoor silver the following year.
A series of coaches couldn’t get her out the funk, and then she met John Bartoletta. They soon were married and her track and field career was back in high gear, beginning in 2012. She was fourth in the 100 meters at the 2012 London Games in a career-best 10.85 seconds and led off the world-record women’s 4x100 relay (40.82 seconds) that won gold.
“I didn’t do much for seven years,” she said. “I felt lost and was bouncing back from injuries, both physically and mentally. In 2012, I had switched coaches and also met John. It provided me stability and enough good coaching to really blossom on the track.”
She needed the career jumpstart after not qualifying for the Olympics in the long jump in 2004 and 2008. She returned to the Olympics in three events in Rio in 2016.
She was eliminated from the 100 in the prelims, but Bartoletta wouldn’t be dragged down by the disappointment. She won gold in the long jump with a career-best 7.17 meters (23 feet, 6.3 inches). She passed up teammate and defending Olympic champ Brittney Reese in the fifth of six rounds.
Despite a sprained left ankle from the long jump finals, Bartoletta came back the next day to help the American women defend their title. The victory wasn’t without controversy, as the U.S. was reinstated after it was fouled by China in the prelim. The Americans ran by themselves seven hours later and posted the fastest qualifying time. They won the gold with the second-fastest time in history, trailing only their time from four years earlier.
“I would say this started what I called the third version of my life,” said Bartoletta, 33. “I was cranking out medals. In the meantime I was in a very toxic marriage and trying to manage that. I was very isolated from most people.”
It took tremendous discipline and dedication for Bartoletta to remain in world-class shape and form between the London and Rio Olympics. The feat was even more difficult because she was under a huge strain due to her marriage.
She left John Bartoletta on May 1, 2017.
“It was time to go. I had to go and so I did,” she said. “It was very complicated, very tricky. It had to be a secret. I basically ran from home. I haven’t been back and have not spoken to him since that day.
“We are still going through the divorce process so that is not yet completed, but I’m very much leaps and bounds happier and healthier than I was before.”
Bartoletta quickly picked up the pieces, moving from Tampa, Florida, to Montgomery, Alabama.
“From May 1, 2017, to the present I’ve really made it a point to live, like, to really live,” she said. “That includes just enjoying the things that are in front of me — like finding the little things in travel that I like or really enjoying a training session and being on the track for four hours because I just love it. Or meeting people that follow me on social media platforms who say, ‘Hey, I see you’re in my city, can you meet me for coffee?’ and I do that.”
Her freedom and personal life are vastly different from what they were during her marriage, when her social life was heavily restricted.
“I’m convinced that I’m as cool a human being as I am now because of all of this stuff,” she said. “There is no way I would be able to listen as well or speak as well or love as well if I had not gone through any of the things I’ve gone through. And those are all skills and abilities I’m super proud of, so I can’t say I would not have rather gone through things.”
She’s enjoying life and her new path. But life after a marriage has ended isn’t easy.
“I call it death by a thousand cuts,” Bartoletta said. “It’s really obvious it’s death of a marriage, a death of a relationship. Then something happens. Maybe you’re used to having chili on football Sundays. Then suddenly you walk into your new apartment and you don’t smell the chili any more. It’s like you have to grieve that.
“You’re busy moving on with your life and then you see a dog like the same breed of the one you left behind. And you grieve that. You continue to grieve things that have died to you or that you lost, especially in the divorce process. To go from a relationship where two people love each other to how quickly humanity or civil behavior disappears. Then you’re grieving that. It’s a lot. That why I feel a bunch of little deaths.”
In that pain, and despite of it, she has grown and gained perspective. She acknowledges not all of her past relationships are the same.
“There were some people, and I’m not talking about my family, who were not open to hearing from me again at all,” she said. “That was really hard for me, but that’s their prerogative and that’s where we are now.”
The relationships with her parents and sister appear to be on an upward trend.
“We go into relationships with this idealized filter, coloring every interaction we have,” Bartoletta said. “And now I don’t do that and it doesn’t seem like my family is doing that with me. We are just accepting of where we are at the moment. Sometimes there are painful conversations. Sometimes there are very hard conversations, but that’s all they are. It’s not some overarching declaration about the state of our relationships.
“I think that if I had that maturity earlier that I would have a ton more healthy relationships. The maturity is the ability to separate my idea of what a relationship should be like versus what it actually is and responding just to that.”
Jo Ann Madison was in Montgomery last weekend visiting Bartoletta, who regularly talks with Christina via text or Facebook.
“Christina’s a mom so she’s busy, too,” Bartoletta said.
Bartoletta won nine Division I state titles at Elyria. Three came in long jump, including the state record of 20 feet, 5.75 inches, two each in the 100 and 200 and another two on the 4x100. Her efforts keyed the Pioneers’ state team title, the only one by a Lorain County girls team.
“The latest thing I know that makes me happy is that I enjoy sharing my stories with people, to share what I know, share my stories, pay it forward,” she said. “This homecoming weekend falls very much in line with that, especially Sunday. I’m really proud of that. I’m looking forward to that.”
Bartoletta splits her training time between Montgomery, the Netherlands and Italy.
“Montgomery was the only place I could run to when I was running (away from her husband),” Bartoletta said. “I like Montgomery very much. I do.”
The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are too far away to be her focus. With other key meets and long periods of training in the interim, her top short-term goal is the world championships next year in Doha, Qatar.
“It is impossible to train for an Olympic Games two years out,” she said. “It sounds nice, but the practical application of that is impossible. My actual approach is more to get myself ready to make the world championship team for Doha because that falls within the scope of having a 9- to 10-month training program. That’s pretty much the most macro view you can take of training.
“From there, if that goes well or even if it doesn’t, I’ll have enough information to rework my training program to prepare for the Olympic Trials.”
Those are in June 2020 in Oregon, and she’ll have a condensed preparation because the world meet in Qatar is two months later than normal, from Sept. 27 to Oct. 6. The Tokyo Olympics are July 24 to Aug. 9, 2020.
Bartoletta works with a team of coaches. The primary ones are Charles Ryan, track and field coach for Alabama State University, and Carlo Buzzichelli, a strength and conditioning consultant from Tuscany, Italy.
“I largely write the programs myself,” she said. “I bounce ideas off of my coaches. And I can pick up my phone and call pretty much anyone in the world and they will pretty much help you. It’s definitely a collective effort.”
She uses the Netherlands as a training base, especially for events in that part of the world. She used to train there full time under a different coach.
“I no longer work with that coach but I made Netherlands home,” she said. “I have a house I go back to there. I have friends there who are like family. They call me when things are going on with their kids. If I can make it, I show up. Even though everything is in Dutch, we’re family. I consider that my second home actually.”
Bartoletta is excited about the weekend festivities at home. She has the Ely Stadium dedication Friday, a meet-and-greet at the Elyria Performing Arts Center on Saturday and a seminar she gives Sunday in Westlake.
“Those seven years I was completely horrible at my sport, at my job basically,” she said. “After I came out on the other side in 2014 — because by that time I was No. 1 in the world for long jump, I was sprinting well, I was jumping well — I asked myself, I was largely the same person, what happened? What made the difference?
“I was able to identify five things that I was doing that held me back. I put those five things in an e-book called, ‘Why You’re Not a Track Star.’ I made the e-book available online for free. This clinic on Sunday is a crash course.”
She released the book in May 2017, the same month she left her husband. She had been working on it for three years, but the project wasn’t supported by anyone she was around at the time.
“It fully expands on those five reasons I’ve listed in that book,” she said of the seminar. “I break it completely down, every section, everything that I have learned. I’m attempting to do it in three hours. I have it really scripted. I believe it can be done.
“People that attend will walk away knowing exactly how to control their fate in their sport. A lot of it translates to life, too. I’m just very excited to offer that. This is going to be my last little bit of free time for the next three years. I hope people take advantage of that.”
The book had largely been done for a year, but after leaving her husband she knew it was time to release it.
“A few weeks after I left Florida and ended the marriage, I began to breathe again normally,” Bartoletta said. “I left in a panic. I started to think about what would make me happier, what I would be proud to do moving forward. Releasing that e-book was one of the first things I did for me that filled me with as much as leaving that marriage did. It was really important to me.”
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