When Tianna Madison (’23) was a junior in high school in Elyria, Ohio, she struck a deal with her father that changed the course of her life. If she could find a way, through academics or athletics, to completely cover the cost of her college education, her parents would buy her a car. Madison, a multisport high school athlete determined to win her bet, started running.
“I decided to focus on track and field because it was the sport in which I had the most talent and had the most control in my progress,” Madison says.
Madison’s high school track and field career took off with nine state championships, including seven individual titles. In 2003 she made an appearance in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section, was named to USA Today’s All-USA High School Girls Track Team, and received the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year Award. The All-American athlete also appeared on Elyria High School’s distinguished honor roll all four years and worked with elementary students through the Ohio Reads program.
Her outstanding record on and off the track caught the attention of Tennessee track and field assistant coach Caryl Smith Gilbert. Madison traveled to Knoxville for an official visit. During her time on campus, she noted the uniqueness of the Lady Vol brand, and the atmosphere of the area confirmed that UT was the place to continue her career. In fall 2003 Madison started her journey on Rocky Top, studying social work while running and jumping for the track and field team.
She spent two successful years with the Lady Vols, competing in events such as the long jump, 60-meter dash, and 4x400m relay. Her performance in those events earned 16 points for UT at the 2005 NCAA indoor track and field championships, contributing to the first Lady Vols team championship in a sport other than basketball. For the remainder of the year, the MVP received All-American accolades and was named the Women’s Indoor Field Athlete of the Year for the SEC.
At the conclusion of her sophomore year Madison decided to take her talents to the next level, signing a contract with Nike in 2006. Over the next 16 years she traveled around the world to live, train, and compete.
“I’ve got a total of nine global championship medals [three Olympic gold medals, three World Championship gold medals, and three World Championship bronze medals] and even have a medal from a stint on the [US National] bobsled team, too,” Madison says. “My favorite meet has got to be the Rio Olympics. I came home with two gold medals!”
While preparing for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Madison discovered she was pregnant with her son. She completed the Olympic trials but did not make the team. Madison says she took it as a sign to hang up her spikes.
“There wasn’t much I left unfinished as an athlete,” Madison says. “I always planned to return [to school] when I was done competing. But when I retired, step one of my ‘What’s next?’ plan was finishing my degree.”
In the summer of 2021 Madison contacted Robert Mindrup from UT’s College of Social Work about returning to complete her degree.
After careful thought, Madison decided the best way to finish her degree was online. UT’s online BSSW program gave her the opportunity to take online classes while still attending the university she loves.
“Athletics taught me a lot about time management, but I also know that it takes a team to be successful,” Madison says. “I have an extremely supportive partner, who unselfishly let me move back to Ohio to finish school. My family is how I was able to balance it all.”
UT offers more than 70 degrees and certifications online—from undergrad to doctoral-level degrees, offering students the flexibility to earn a degree from anywhere.
The flexibility of online classes afforded Madison the opportunity to be a student, partner, mom, daughter, and Volunteer simultaneously.
“My toddler was often in class with me either napping in my arms or watching the Zoom tiles on my screen,” Madison says. “Online is the only way I could make this happen.”
Between Assistant Professor Ashley Pennell’s forensic social work course and learning how social justice, advocacy, and policy intersect in Harold Benus’s class, Madison perfected her craft.
For the final part of her program, Madison completed an internship at Providence House, a nonprofit organization in Cleveland, Ohio, that offers free and voluntary noncustodial emergency shelter for children through age 12 who are living in crisis situations. Her supervisor has been highly impressed with Madison’s work ethic, ability to connect with the children, and passion for social justice.
“I’m a hometown hero,” Madison says. “But I also think it’s cool that I can be a social worker, in a position to help other people set goals and help them achieve them. I intend to work with a variety of populations: sports teams, survivors of domestic violence, and young women.”
This spring, exactly 20 years after first coming to campus, Madison crossed the stage to receive her Bachelor of Science in Social Work. “I hope Tianna’s story resonates with anyone, particularly those nontraditional students, who either begin or finish their degrees later in life,” Mindrup says. “She is truly an amazing and inspiring human being.”