Tears streamed down the face of Team USA’s Tianna Bartoletta as she collected her bronze medal in the long jump during the final days of the IAAF world championships last weekend. Having previously won gold in the event at worlds twice before, and being the reigning Olympic gold medalist at the long jump, Bartoletta has had better finishes, but she wasn’t crying sad tears. Her tears came from relief — that she could persevere and even succeed through even the darkest of times.
“[Y]ou may find it hard to believe but this Bronze medal is THE most special medal I have ever won,” the 31-year-old wrote on Instagram after collecting her hardware. “Because just three short months ago I had to run away from my own home, I had to decide which of ALL my belongings were the most important, I had to leave my dogs, I had little money, I still have no actual address, all to give myself a chance at having a life and the love I deserved — one that didn’t involve fear or fighting, threats, and abuse.”
Bartoletta shocked her fans, revealing that she’s been homeless for three months, while she escaped what she has alleged was an abusive marriage to her husband of five years John Bartoletta. (For his part, John Bartoletta has characterized the couple’s divorce as “amicable,” per the BBC.)
“I took a huge gamble blowing my life up in such an important year for me career-wise. But it was about time for me to see that I was worth it,” she continued. “It was worth it. Thanks so much for riding with me.”
Not having a permanent address, however, was just one of the many obstacles Bartoletta had to overcome on her way to worlds. On Wednesday, she opened up to the BBC about the effect her relationship had on her mental health.
“I lost my personality,” she said. “I felt like I became a stranger to myself almost.”
Bartoletta said she even thought about suicide.
“It got so dark that I was contemplated walking off a train platform in front of a train in Europe last season because it just started to feel like I had no way out, no way out of the feelings of frustration and shame,” she said. “It was just so tempting to call it quits.”
Bartoletta told the BBC it took her a while to open up to people about how she was feeling, including family, but doing so put her on the path to feeling better.
“This has been my therapy — sharing this story with you, sharing the Instagram post, blogging,” she said. “It has kind of been my way of healing.”
Now she hopes to inspire others who might also be struggling.
“The most important thing is you’re not alone,” she said. “[Depression] is a very difficult situation, it’s complex, it’s confusing and hard for a lot of people who aren’t in it to understand, but … I understand.”
Others who suffer from similar issues haven’t always followed a positive path. At least 102 former Olympians have committed suicide, according to statistics kept by Sports Reference. Twenty-one of them were track and field athletes.
While studies suggest elite athletes have a broadly comparable risk of developing depression relative to the general public, Bartoletta suggested her athletic success acted as an impediment to her getting help.
“[T]he most difficult thing … I was still being successful on the track, so I think it was easier to overlook the personality change because I was still bringing it home, medals in huge performances,” Bartoletta told the BBC. “So I was able to rationalize the change in my personality, and other people would say, ‘Oh, that’s just what it took to be elite. It was the sacrifice. She’s just the ultimate professional.’ ”
Going forward, Bartoletta said she has no foolproof plan to keep on the path of growth, but she appears confident that she’ll continue to make strides and not just on the track.
“This [world championships] was the finish line for me. The thing that I’ve been focused on so much till now,” she said. “I’m little bit lost again. Because I don’t have that routine to fall back on but I’m figuring it out.”