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Tampa-based Olympian went from rags to riches to win gold, love

Tianna Bartoletta met her husband, John, by chance at a restaurant in Orlando, and the two immediately clicked.
Published Mar. 20, 2013

TAMPA — Sprinter Tianna Bartoletta sat in a chair at Tampa's Centre Club, gold medal dangling from her neck, explaining the path from her athletic beginnings to Olympic glory.

She has been sharing her story — how she went from the world's best long jumper, to languishing for seven years, to becoming an Olympic gold medalist.

At the room's front table, watching and listening intently, sat her husband, John.

In 2005, at age 19, Tianna won the world long jump championship.

Then she struggled to match that success. She grew out of shape — by track and field standards. She dealt with a bankruptcy and foreclosure.

But last year, Tianna, 27, did anything but struggle. She helped the U.S. women win gold in the 4x100-meter relay and shatter the world record at the Summer Olympics in London. She followed that feat by earning a spot on the U.S. national bobsled team that aims to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

If you asked what changed in those seven years, Tianna points to a chance meeting with John, a 49-year-old investment manager, in Orlando.

She came to Orlando after moving from Los Angeles to train with coach Caryl Smith Gilbert. She had just placed a "devastating" fifth at the 2008 Olympic trials.

"I needed to perform better and I was nearing the end of my contract, and I needed to post results," Tianna said.

Then she stumbled upon John Bartoletta at an Orlando restaurant. Their first encounter became a sprawling three-hour conversation.

"Three hours, and that was it," John said. "I couldn't stop thinking about her."

Although Tianna said the conversation was fun, it also contained hard, honest truths that she would take to heart.

"(He said) 'You haven't stopped lying to yourself, you haven't stopped cutting corners'," she said. " 'You don't even know how you good you are.' "

John said they started dating right away, talking every day. She moved to Lutz to live with him, and in 2012 they married.

On New Year's Eve that year, sitting on the couch with John watching a Red Bull snowmobile and motorcycle jump, Tianna said, she decided to fully commit to track and field. The name of the event: New Year. No Limit.

"We decided that 2012 was going to be our year," she said.

She started a daily commute from Lutz to Daytona Beach to train with coach Rana Reider that would last 220 days. Tianna said she would leave at 7 a.m. and make it to practice at 10 a.m. for a track workout that would last until noon.

She would then have a couple of minutes to call John and eat leftovers — steak, beef jerky, a protein shake. After training in the weight room, she would drive home and eat a regimen of 2 pounds of steak, a bag of mushrooms or brussels sprouts, lots of spinach and lots of water.

It was so much water, John said, that she drank 11 cases of 24-packs in the five weeks leading up to the Olympic trials.

"She was anemic at the time," he said. "Her whole body type, strength and body fat level changed radically last year."

Despite winning the gold medal, Tianna said, the greater sense of success at the Olympics came when she finished fourth in the 100-meter finals just .04 from another medal. While she didn't earn bronze, she clocked a 10.85 — a time she had been striving to reach.

"I will tell you we celebrated a lot harder about that 10.85 than we did about the gold medal," Tianna said.

When it came time to celebrate the gold medal, the couple stopped by a convenience store near their rented flat in London.

"We walked into the convenience store with the medal because of one of the cashiers had said, "If you don't come back with the medal, I'm going to kill you,' " Tianna said. "This girl, she was really funny. So I go, 'Ha!' and showed her the medal."

They bought potato chips and Magnum ice creams, went home and watched the latest Harry Potter movie.

That night, they started discussing the similarities between track and field and bobsledding — training, warmups, the block start and the bobsled start. John put in a call, and Tianna was asked to try out for the U.S. bobsled team.

After making the team, she first competed on the Lake Placid, N.Y., track, taking third place. And although Tianna said she wasn't afraid for her life, it was an intense, violent experience.

"I'm so disoriented, I'm walking sideways," she said. "I can't get out of my helmet, I start to hyperventilate. John's looking completely scared to death. And I finally get out of my helmet, and there's just drool and snot everywhere."

Now Tianna is training for the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. Her commute now only includes Tampa and Bradenton, but the training remains intense. She takes a day off for recovery, including chiropractic and hyperbaric chamber sessions.

She's also hoping to launch Club 360, a primarily online outreach program for young girls, by the end of the year. She said she came up with the idea several years ago, while still struggling herself.

Looking back, Tianna said, the beginning of her current success in track and field came from that three-hour dinner conversation with John.

"I believed what he was saying and believed him enough to believe in myself, and that was kind of the start of the whole new track and field journey," she said. "But it also was the foundation of our relationship, which is believe in each other."

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