by Tianna Bartoletta

I won my first world championship title at 19-years-old. I didn’t really know why I won and so I couldn’t replicate it. It didn’t take me long to fall apart. I was essentially garbage for the next seven years because I didn’t understand what it took to be elite.

In 2016, I started my passion project Why You Are Not A Track Star. The whole idea of looking back on my life and my career helped me identify five specific reasons why I wasn’t a track star during those seven years. I don’t think those five reasons only apply to me. It’s really important to me to share my experiences with other people – because hey, maybe I can spare you seven years of horrible performances.

Let’s go back to 2005, the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki.

I think on that specific day I wanted it more than anyone. My coach said: “nobody thinks you’re gonna win, so go out there, have a good time and take out as many jumpers as you can.”

That upset me. Luckily, I do really well when I’m upset. I’m like the Incredible Hulk when I’m angry, I can pull off the most ridiculous performances and that’s exactly what happened.

The weather was horrible, it was 40°F and raining and a lot of the professional athletes who’d been doing this for a long time let that get to them. Whereas me, I’m a little girl from Ohio, I’m used to that kind of weather. It didn’t bother me. I was there for scalps, and I took them.

Tianna Bartoletta at the 2005 World Championships (Getty Images)

The problem came after I won.

Because I was so new – I was just a sophomore in college – I wasn’t really a student of my sport. I didn’t study my event much. I was just happy that I had proved one of the people I was closest to wrong on that day. They thought I couldn’t win, and I went out there and won. And for me that was enough.

That’s a huge red flag. That should never be enough. It should never be the reason why you’re putting yourself out there on the line, day in, day out.

There needs to be a better, a more genuine, a more organic why than just this chip on your shoulder and the “I need to prove people wrong” attitude. That was my number one feeling then. It stayed that way for a long time and that’s part of the reason why I wasn’t able to duplicate that success for a long time. Seven years to be precise.

My watershed moment came when I decided to actually quit. 

Instead of just walking away from the sport completely and abruptly, I put together a plan: I’m going to run long enough to earn tuition, so that I can pay for finishing my Molecular and Microbiology degree, then I’ll get into Medical School. Nobody is going to question me about my life choices like “oh what happened, you were such a good athlete?” when I could say “yea, but I wanted to go to Medical School”. Most people would be like “oh that’s awesome”, nobody would be like “oh you just quit”, right?

It was a plan I felt I could be comfortable with. It became my why, for why I was competing. Suddenly I had a legitimate reason for wanting to do well at meets. I was trying to earn enough money, to place well enough, to get tuition.

Even though that’s a horrible, superficial reason when it comes to performance, it was enough of a why to ground me and focus me. That focus actually ended up developing me into a better athlete. So my watershed moment is that if you have a why – a legitimate why – it can literally change the trajectory of your career.

In addition to just having a legitimate why came the belief that it could work. Finally having a little bit of faith. I had lost that. There were times when I didn’t have faith in myself, but there were people around, who believed for me. It was that little bit of belief plus a shallow why that kept me going to practice every day. Those workouts, showing up every day and being committed for two or three hours on the track were like little deposits in that bank account. Basically, I was just building a better and better and better foundation.

Tianna Bartoletta lifestyle (Tianna Bartoletta)

When I won the Olympics in 2016, that’s when I felt I now have a legitimate reason to be sharing my experiences. There’d be no point if I’d have won in 2005 and not done anything after that.

The moment I realised I won the Olympics, that’s literally what I said. I put my hand over my mouth and said “I just won the Olympics” to myself. And the second thought was “now people are gonna believe me when I explain to them what it takes to get to this point.”

Everybody tries to be a motivational speaker. Everybody wants to inspire other people. I felt I didn’t have the credibility to tell that story until that very moment. That was really important to me. I’ve been through so much, the struggle has been absolutely real in this career as a professional. Winning in that moment, I was proud of myself because I had to do a lot of it on my own. Nothing compares to walking away with a medal that you literally had to bleed, cry and sweat for.

The point is, track and field is one of those sports where you have a lot of control over what happens to you. Maybe one of the few sports. It is not a team event. You get to control what you do with the information that’s available to you.

I wrote Why You Are Not A Track Star to offer that resource to athletes who might not have good coaching in high school, whose high school track coach might just be the music teacher because there’s nobody else to step in, who does not really know track and field, but is out there because there’s a track team. You should still be able to understand the elements of your sport and know there are people out there willing to help you.

I am trying to provide that. For me, track and field has been – as much as I hate it sometimes because it’s an unapologetic sport and business – it’s been my passport to the world. It’s given me this crazy jet set life, it’s given me this expansive platform and I’ve met so many different people and all because I learnt how to use physics to my advantage. How to eat properly. How to do drills. How to take care of myself. How to recover. All things that you can learn and master on your own.

It’s amazing. It’s a gift that, if used properly, will keep on giving. I want younger athletes to understand that. It can get you into college. You can possibly become pro. You can travel the world. All you have to do is commit to being the best athlete you can be. And I’m here to help you do that. That’s the point.

Video: Mario Bassani