Tianna Bartoletta

248: Why Conquering Oneself is the Only True Victory

This week’s conversation is with Tianna Bartoletta, a professional track and field athlete from Elyria, Ohio that specializes in the short sprints, the 4x100m relay and the long jump.

Tianna and Jesse Owens are 2 of just 3 athletes in the states history to win four state titles two years in a row.

She attended and ran track for the University of Tennessee, but turned pro after her sophomore season when she won her fist world championship title at 19 years old.

Tianna’s a two-time Olympian, a 3x Olympic Gold Medalist, a world-record holder, and a 3x world champion.

A reigning Olympic Champion and now 35 year old, Tianna is currently training to defend her title at Tokyo 2021.

In this conversation, Tianna shares what it’s like to compete on the world’s biggest stage, and how she manages the pressure – one moment to make 4 years of hard work pay off.

All of us are world-class athletes, all of us are the best in the world there, but the difference between myself and someone else or the reason I’m so much harder to beat, even when I’m not the best jumper on paper, is my willingness to do it in that moment and not let the noise cut through.”

In This Episode:

Her willingness to speak openly about how she feels

What is the point of all that struggle if I’m just going to sit on the lessons that I learned from it, if I’m not going to share or do anyone else any favors by saying, “Hey, it looks like you’re going through something that I went through and this is kind of what came of it for me, perhaps this can help guide you a little bit because all of us go through things.” Most of us sit back and we ask, what was the point of that suffering? What was the point like, where does that get me? And a lot of times there’s no real answer, right? Because good things happen to good people, bad things happen to good people. You’re like, I don’t get it. I don’t deserve it. And so it’s a way for me to make it matter.

Describe a seminal moment at the Olympic Games

The long jump final 2016 Rio Olympic games was my first individual medal, which feels a little bit different from a relay medal because you’re not sharing the pressure or the victory, so it was very different and you’re on the runway by yourself. I think in the moment I had no idea actually where I stood in the competition, because I wasn’t paying attention to that because it doesn’t matter.

Why didn’t the competition matter?

It didn’t matter what anyone else jumped because that had no bearing on my ability to jump. And so there’s no point in me watching the soap opera that is the long jump with the lead changes and the announcement about such and such just broke her national record, doesn’t affect my ability to actually physically do what I came to do. And so when it was my fifth jump, I remember standing there saying, okay, I am the fastest long jumper in the world. You know, hyping myself up, these are my affirmations. That season, I covered 100 meters in 10.7, eight seconds. The second fastest long jumper in that competition ran 1120 and so just off of physics right there, it’s like, if I don’t give any of that speed away on the runway I got this. And so I focused on where are my strengths.

Where does her confidence come from?

I have to go all the way back to training, this is a matter of repetition and it’s basically that confidence comes from my competence, which I developed in training. So in that moment, when we fast forward back to the Olympic final, it’s I know I can do it I’ve done it every day for 40 weeks. Am I willing to do it here in this environment under pressure? Because all of us are world-class athletes, all of us are the best in the world there, but the difference between myself and someone else or the reason I’m so much harder to beat, even when I’m not the best jumper on paper, is my willingness to do it in that moment and not let the noise cut through.

Will vs. ability

I know I have the ability, the question is, will I showcase it here? We’re always the ones that are holding ourselves back for whatever reason.  I remember a time in high school where I was paralyzed by nerves at the state championship. And I was unwilling to put myself out there enough to even see if I could be successful. And I think that high school moment and how bad it felt to be unwilling and not even essentially try, makes me understand that for me it is about will. It absolutely is about my ability, but my willingness to showcase my preparation and my abilities in that moment.

The vulnerability that comes with competing at the highest level

I find competing and high performance to be vulnerable. Some of us don’t want to get out there after having trained for 40 plus weeks and find out it wasn’t enough. And so then they’re unwilling to really just put everything on the table because to find out that you put everything on the table and it wasn’t enough can be devastating. I have to choose in that moment to be willing to go out on my shield either way and that’s why it’s less about ability for me in that moment and more about will.

Why’d she start training her mind?

I ran track to get a scholarship, not to be an elite athlete, not to be a professional athlete. My dad said, you need to go to college for free, figure it out. Track was my way to do that and that was supposed to be the end of it. But needing to navigate turning pro at 20 years old and suddenly it’s your job and needing to not be so volatile and to rise and fall and live and die with performances. It was a matter of survival for me to figure out how to get my, make my mind an ally so that I could be more successful so that it would be a more sustainable life for me.

What was she initially searching for?

I think it was validation for me, I was looking for some kind of sign or confirmation that the journey made sense that it was worth it, that the struggle would end up fruitful. And I will say that even though I left the games with two metals, I was not validated in that way because that’s not how it works, but that is what I was looking for. I found validation in Getting my mind under control. It was like being able to look at my life and understand what it was for, being able to be in the middle of a storm and find some calm or some peace or some rest through that whole ordeal. I learned who I was along the way and that’s what I had actually been searching for myself and didn’t know that that’s what I was searching for.

There aren’t two separate experiences

I don’t feel anything on the track that I have not felt off the track and that’s something that I think is really important for people to understand. They aren’t two separate experiences, I am still the same human, both in and out of the arena so even like my meditation practice at home, I drop into that same space at the starting line or at the top of the runway before the event. They’re the same, they’re the same thing. So it’s not like I’m experiencing something totally new and athletes that try to create a brand new experience once they get to a championship, typically fail because you have to bring your experience in the rehearsals, to the arena, not some new version of what you think is going to get you there. So, yeah, it’s the same.

What is driving her?

It’s a pursuit of mastery and sometimes I refer to it as perfection but it’s not perfection because I know, I have a front row seat to my BS. Right? So I know that there are a lot of areas that I could be better, that I could level up and this radical commitment, as you put it, is like, okay, I’m going to actually now check those boxes and do all of the things in all of these categories because I think that if I do, actually I don’t know what will happen but I do know it’ll be good because I haven’t done it yet. I haven’t done it before because if you do what you’ve always done, as they say, you get what you’ve always gotten. I know what I can jump, doing things how I used to do things. Now let’s see what I can do, perfecting the fuel plan, eating six times a day like I’m supposed to, getting the meal timing right, doing the digital detox I know I should do. All of these little tiny things that people don’t really think about too much when they’re watching the Olympic final, all of those little things, that’s money in the bank. I call it my “Performance ATM”. I’m making deposits and I know, for a fact, that there are a lot of things that I didn’t deposit into this bank and I still ended up with nine global championship medals. So what happens when I just nail it? What can happen? And I’m curious about finding that out.

Why it’s not all about medaling

I got fourth in the Olympics in the 100 in 2012 and that, I ran the fastest time in my life then, but I remember for a split second thinking, “All of that work was for nothing.” But that’s horrible because all of that work, I learned so much. I dropped so much time in that race but because I didn’t leave with a medal I suddenly threw all of that work and effort out of the window. No. So, no, it’s not about coming home with another medal. It’s about Tianna. What can Tianna do when she is just doing everything she can possibly do and let’s just find out?

What’s her mindset when things get difficult?

I have to still find a way and put one foot in front of the other and know that in the end I’m sacrificing it all to something, anyway. So when it gets tough financially it’s like, we have to see. If I know for a fact that this will be horrible if I stop going to practice. So you might as well keep going because the only out way is through, at that point and that’s where I am with that. It’s like the only way out is through. There’s no going back. My mom used to say to me all the time, she would say, “The Bible says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’.” It didn’t say, “As I sit chilling and being feeling sorry for myself.” It’s like you’re walking through so I think that’s one of the mantras that I take on when it gets really hard. The only way out is through because honestly, I’m not always motivated. My discipline takes over when my motivation runs out but I have to kind of just say, “Okay, you’ve got to keep going, one more. One more. One more day. One more step.” So it’s nothing profound. It’s just like the only way out at this point, you’ve come too far to only come this far, as they say.

Remaining true to her principles

I really believe I’m not entitled to the results or the outcome. I’m not guaranteed anything anyway. So the only thing that I actually have control over is myself and how I show up in any given moment. So absolutely. The risk is there but you don’t know how this ends anyway so you might as well show up in a way you can be proud of because I’d rather take an L being proud of myself and who I was along the way than a victory having had to completely fabricate a different persona to get there.

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