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Use this gift of time 

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Rio 2016 long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta reveals how she is coping with the unprecedented situation, and explains why you should view the extra year as an opportunity to get physically and mentally stronger. 

  • Since winning gold in Rio, US sprinter and long jumper Tianna Bartoletta has faced a series of health setbacks. 
  • After recovering from emergency surgery to remove a tumour, her training comeback was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • With Tokyo 2020 postponed, Tianna is aiming to make the most of the opportunity of having an extra year to get healthy and defend her long jump title. 

After winning gold at Rio 2016, I followed that up with a hard-fought bronze medal at the World Athletics Championships in 2017. But the following year I sprained my ankle so badly that it ended my season early. In 2019, I decided to get back out there again, but the ankle was not recovered, so I spent the entire season being frustrated about that. At the same time, I learned that I had severe anaemia. 

I felt like I was dying’ 

When I went to get the ankle treated at our Olympic Training Center in Colorado, I actually passed out. I was sent to the hospital and learned that I had extreme blood loss and no iron; I was just a mess. I spent the next several months flying back and forth to Colorado, getting iron diffusions, but I wasn’t getting better; my body wasn’t healing.  

Things weren’t going well, and I kept thinking, Great, this is just perfect preparation for a reigning Olympic champion. It was probably the worst four-year period that I’d had between Games. I was really frustrated with the fact that I wasn’t going to get the opportunity to feel good about anything going into the Olympic year. Everything was such a struggle. 

Finally, in November last year, it became too much. I felt like I was dying. I could feel that I was done. I really forced my doctors to take a look at everything one final time before I made the call to just retire. That’s when we learned that I had a tumour, and I got it removed just four hours later. Since then, I’ve had to get approval from WADA for blood transfusions, because I had lost so much blood. But I was finally beginning to feel good again. 

‘Everything came to a complete halt’ 

I had just finished my third consecutive week of training, when California declared a shelter-in-place order due to the coronavirus. Every track and every gym were essentially shut down; everything came to a complete halt. 

At that point, I honestly laughed just to keep myself from crying. I’d finally got my body back, I was finally training well, and there was this new thing to overcome and try to figure out. 

But the reason why I now welcome these things is because I take all of that to competitions with me. If you see me on the starting line, you will fully understand what it took for me to get to that moment. I carry that. That is the fuel that that carries me through big, big championships like thatI dig deep and I go. And so, this is just another one of those things. 

‘Thank you for this gift of time’ 

Thinking about myself and my health issues – and the fact I wasn’t able to train because the track was locked, the gym was closed – I just thought, “Thank you for this gift of time”. Postponing the Olympics doesn’t guarantee me a spot on the team; it doesn’t guarantee me a medal. But now I have the time to prepare myself even better. 

I wasn’t sure that I would be able to get back to my best in time for the US Olympic trials, so I’m grateful for the time that I now have to heal, which I obviously didn’t have before 

It would be the biggest regret of my life to squander this opportunity. And so, I won’t. That’s the motivation now. I remember the first workout I did after the news came of the postponement, and it was actually one of my best workouts. 

Just do what you can right now 

My message to other athletes at this time is just, “Take care of yourself. And that means a lot of different things to a lot of people. Don’t think about the Olympics in terms of, “Will I be ready when I get there?” Don’t do that to yourself. I mean, it’s already hard enough as it is to make a team. It’s already hard enough to become an Olympian. That’s not something you need to worry about today. For today, how can you best take care of yourself? That might mean you need to go back to bed, sleep for a couple more hours. 

If being productive during this time makes you feel crappy or whatever, don’t do it. Take care of yourself. And that means the athlete part of you and the rest of you. It’s really importantI think a lot of us are focused on, “How do I take care of the athlete in me?” And then we’re neglecting the mental health side, or the ramifications of isolation, or even the feeling of a lack of purpose in something. 

I think a lot of us are focused on, “How do I take care of the athlete in me?” And then we’re neglecting the mental health side, or the ramifications of isolation, or even the feeling of a lack of purpose in something. 

So just be compassionate, take it easy. Nobody’s doing the work that they wish they could be doing right now. So just do what you can do. 

That sense of hopelessness is gone now. That’s the other thing that we’re learning in the situation – hope is powerful. So let’s continue to look forward, focus on what you can do, be optimistic, and have hope that you can get there. And we will. We’ll all get there. 

Athlete365 is providing advice from athletes and experts on how to deal with the pandemic and changes to your schedule. For sports psychologist Paul Wylleman’s top tips on how to stay positive, click here