Ruthie Bolton, one of the most successful women in sports, reveals her decade-long struggle with domestic abuse in this stunning interview

By Cristina Goyanes
October 28, 2014

"I know I don't fit the profile," admits WNBA all-star 'Mighty Ruthie' Bolton about being a victim of domestic violence, which she discussed publicly for the first time in a packed room at the fifth annual espnW Women + Sports Summit earlier this month. The 5-foot-9 powerhouse from Mississippi, whose toned arms are nearly as impressive as her two Olympic gold medals, looks like she could take down almost any man who tried to hurt her. But it wasn't quite so simple for Bolton. "Typically, in my family, the women were very submissive. I would have never hit him back," she says, referring to her ex-husband Mark Holifield, the police officer she says routinely beat her during their 11-year marriage from 1991 to 2002.

"I felt like I could do whatever I wanted on the basketball court. If I needed to defend someone and keep them from scoring, I could do that," the 47-year-old Hall-of-Famer says. "In my personal life, however, living in an abusive marriage, I let the power of fear and guilt take over." By guilt, Bolton explains that she had cheated on her husband right around the time she won gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. At first, she says, her confession sparked his repentance. He begged her through tears not to leave him for another man. Bolton was hopeful that almost losing her meant that Holifield would change, but it wasn't long, she explains, before he returned to his physically and verbally abusive ways.

"We could be watching TV and he might say, 'Oh, is that how he'd kiss you?,' and then start pulling out my braids," she says. Things worsened whenever he drank, she explains, which was often. Though he had never put her in the hospital-Bolton recalls that he liked to remind her it wasn't that bad-she reveals that most nights, especially months after the Olympics, she was constantly worried.

"I always kept a bag with some clothes and a credit card at a friend's house just in case. One night, when he was heavily drinking, I knew I was in trouble. He was sitting on the living room floor with a gun in his hand, asking me to 'come here' from the kitchen. I was stalling, hoping he'd fall asleep. But when he didn't and began calling me names, I decided to go out the backdoor, through the garage and run to my neighbor's to call my friend. I just took off barefoot," she recalls.

Bolton, like so many victims of domestic violence, never felt the timing was right to talk about what was happening with teammates, friends or family. Though she knows people had their suspicions, especially family members (Bolton is one of 20 kids), she tried to cover it up, playing it off like it was less life-threatening than it actually was. Bolton's rationale: She had decided that when she said "I do" to Holifield, who was her first love and, she says, wasn't abusive before their marriage, she was committed to making it work. Even after three months of almost daily violence in 1996, Bolton says she held her breath, thinking that they'd turned a corner when he asked her to renew their vows. That November, en route to the wedding ceremony however, Holifield punched her while she was driving to remind her that he hadn't forgotten her infidelity. With a black eye, Bolton said "I do" once more. "I didn't know whether victory was staying or leaving," she says.

Even years after the couple's divorce in 2002, Bolton stayed quiet. She didn't mention the abuse in her 2012 book, The Ride of a Lifetime, nor during her speaking tours in which she encouraged young girls and athletes to pursue their dreams. It wasn't until recently when producer/director Nick Leisure approached her about making a documentary about her life and career that she started to think about opening up.

"It made me realize that no one would look at me and imagine what I went through. I was a prisoner of my own emotions. I'm so glad that I can now use my pain to help empower others," says Bolton, who is currently working on the film, which doesn't yet have a release date. "It's hard to revisit that sad place where I felt defeated and embarrassed that I let someone beat me. But I know it will help to share my story. Ladies, please know if a man really loves you, he will walk away before he thinks of hitting you. Trust me, getting beat is not love."

Remarried with two small children (she and Holifield have no children together), Bolton doesn't hold a grudge against her first husband. "Forgiveness is part of the battle. You can't keep holding that in," she says. "I was a victim long enough. If I held onto my resentment, it would continue to bother me. I'm glad I let it go."