A Mighty Heart

After two NCAA division titles, two Olympic gold medals and eight seasons as the Sacramento Monarchs’ original franchise player, Ruthie Bolton, aka “Mighty Ruthie,” faces down the biggest challenge of her life. And it isn’t on a basketball court.

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Not to be deterred, Ruthie paid her own way and showed up at training camp. When the list of who had made the cut went up on the wall, her name was on it: She was the only player to make the team out of the uninvited hopefuls.

Tara VanDerveer was brought in from Stanford to coach the historic team that included such future greats as Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Katrina McClain. She was impressed by Ruthie’s tenacious play. “If she was a dog, she’d be a pit bull. Aggressive, extremely competitive,” says VanDerveer. “She’s a skill player—she can shoot the lights out. She worked hard on every aspect on the court. Great rebounder, great defense.”

This style of play was something new, VanDerveer says, one that other teams didn’t see coming. “The perception of American basketball was that the teams were talented, but not hardworking.”

The women’s team embarked on a full-time training program (as opposed to assembling just for a handful of games) and, for the first time, players earned an annual salary (of $50,000) and participated in 52 games in the season, traveling all over the world to compete against various national and college teams. They played what VanDerveer calls “unselfish basketball.” Their record at the end of the season going into the Olympics was 52-0. They were a big enough deal that Sports Illustrated put Ruthie, Sheryl Swoopes and Katrina McClain on the cover of its Olympic Preview Issue in July of 1996. The team swept the Olympics, going 8-0 in the Games for the gold medal.

Bolton with Monarchs teammate Yolanda Griffith and Kings stars Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac in 2002 (Portrait by Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)That final matchup in Atlanta against Brazil, the defending champions, was the stuff of legend. People who were there describe that game as one of the finest hours in any sport. Ruthie was tasked with defending Brazil’s leading scorer, Maria Paula Silva. She held Silva to just seven points.

Writing about the game for Ruthie’s induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2014, veteran sportswriter Rick Cleveland wrote, “What she achieved as the point guard for Team USA in the 1996 Olympics remains one of the single most impressive athletic performances I covered in more than 45 years of sportswriting. She scored, she distributed, she guarded, she got seemingly every loose ball, and she was the engine that enabled that U.S. team to win gold.”

“It put women’s basketball on the map, professionally. It was a perfect ending to a perfect season and perfect players united to come together,” Ruthie’s then-teammate Nikki McCray recalls. “We were firing on all cylinders. Everybody had a tremendous amount of focus and we were not going to let anybody down—not our teammates, not our coaches—because we knew what we had battled all season long. To have that perfect season and play that perfect game was truly something that not a lot of people get a chance to witness and be a part of.”

“That game is what put her on the map,” MaeOla says of Ruthie’s performance, echoing McCray’s choice of words. “It put her on a whole different level. She went to battle. She went out and gave it her all, and she conquered it.”

MaeOla Bolton watched the Olympic victory from the stands. A car accident had ended her own sports career abruptly. (Today she lives in New Jersey, where she is an IT consultant in the health care industry and runs a youth basketball camp.) Ruthie knew it should’ve been the Bolton sisters, together, experiencing that triumph. So when Ruthie left the podium after the medal ceremony, she promptly climbed up into the stands and hung her gold medal around her sister’s neck. “For the first time in my life, I was speechless,” MaeOla says.

But throughout this odds-defying and open-hearted performance—while appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and standing on the podium at the Olympic Games—one of the strongest, fiercest women in the world of sports was being abused by her husband. Not yet ready to come out on a larger stage about her personal life, Ruthie devotes a scant two paragraphs to the challenge of overcoming an abusive marriage in her 2012 book, but she does mention there that the worst years were 1993-1997, exactly when she was peaking as a U.S. national team player. And around the time of the Olympic Games, Ruthie says, Mark would hit her or pull her hair almost daily.

Even McCray, Ruthie’s best friend and roommate on the road, had no idea what Ruthie was going through. She found out about it after the fact, along with the rest of the world. “Ruthie is a very private person,” McCray says, adding that “she is one of the more mentally tough people I know.”

In speculating as to why Ruthie said nothing, despite their closeness during the ’95-96 season, McCray says that she had recently gotten engaged herself, and thinks Ruthie was shielding her. “That’s just her. She was not going to let me see that side of marriage, because marriage is a beautiful thing, but it wasn’t, at that time, for her.”

He hit Ruthie for the first time three months into the marriage. The two were sitting side by side, looking at an album of memorabilia, when something Ruthie said in the course of their casual conversation—it was trivial enough a comment that she doesn’t remember what it was—tipped Mark’s jealousy over the edge, and he slugged her in the face.

One person who did find out the truth during the 1996 Olympics, years after the abuse began, was MaeOla.

“I immediately confronted her ex-husband about it,” she says. “As the big sister, I went up to him and said, ‘I know everything you’ve done, and you’re a coward.’ And a few other words.”

Despite having vented her sisterly ire, MaeOla found herself unable to convince Ruthie to end the marriage. “ ‘Walk away. Pack your bags.’ That’s all I could say or do,” MaeOla says, acknowledging that “even though we’re siblings, we’re totally different.”

After the Olympics, Ruthie found a new reason to blame herself for the problems in her marriage: During the Games, she confessed to her husband about an affair she had with another athlete. He said he forgave her. And for a while Ruthie thought this catharsis would bring them together, finally. He begged her not to leave him for another man, and asked her to renew their vows. She agreed, thinking that maybe this would be the turning point she’d always believed would come. Just after Christmas that year, they drove from Auburn to McLain for the wedding ceremony at her family’s home. Before they left, Mark went out drinking, so he was inebriated and in a brooding mood when they set out on the trip. “I guess he’d been thinking about what happened in the past,” she says. “I don’t know what it was that got him thinking about it, but he just took one hand and smashed me.”

He would forgive, but he wouldn’t forget. When Mark got started, he’d feed off of his own rage, so that each attack was usually more than one blow. “He would keep hitting me,” Ruthie says. “I just tried to protect myself. I never fought back.”

Ruthie could not hide her black eye from her family, and, against their wishes, she insisted on going through with renewing her vows.

The WNBA great discusses domestic violence publicly for the first time at the ESPNW: Women + Sports Summit in Dana Point, Calif., in 2014. (Photo by by Mpu Dinani/Getty Images)

Today MaeOla believes that the tone of their upbringing contributed to Ruthie’s vulnerability. “[Between] our parents, there was no physical abuse,” she says carefully. “But the times in which we grew up—you’re dealing with a man who is domineering. My father was very domineering. At the time, it was expected. But I think that for the younger generation, for me, it seemed like that was a little abusive.” She remembers seeing tears in her mother’s eyes after her father had been harsh with her, and resolving never to let anyone speak to her that way. But she understands that hers is not a typical reaction. “They say that most women want to marry someone like their father,” she says quietly, pausing. “All of my sisters have experienced some type of abuse in their marriages.” Ruthie might not even be aware of this pattern in the family, she says. In a large family, everyone has a different experience.

But for whatever reason, be it nature, nurture or a combination of both, Ruthie wasn’t ready to leave, and MaeOla and the rest of the family had to let it go for the time being.

“You don’t know what you’re going to do in a situation until you’re confronted with it,” MaeOla says. “I didn’t really know what to do. Basically you let them know you’re there for them, that you love and support them. You [can’t] make the decision for them.”

Ruthie’s father, who died in 1998, had at one point made her promise that at the very least, she would leave if she ever felt her life to be in danger.

It would take her another six years to get out for good, divorcing Mark in 2002—well into her career as one of the WNBA’s founding All-Stars.

Ruthie left her husband one night after he came home drunk, armed and behaving in a manner she found more threatening than ever before. There was something about the way he sounded that night. This time she was scared. She remembered the promise she’d made to her father, so she ran out of the house, and never went back.

Still, watching the ESPN documentary, it may seem as if Ruthie’s relationship with Mark ended that night, but she is quick to point out that this wasn’t the case. Even after she divorced him, Ruthie says, she continued to hold out hope for reconciliation. She stayed in touch with his mother. “I fought for my marriage for a long time.”