Former Auburn University women’s basketball star Ruthie Bolton is no stranger to fear. Between exceeding expectations on the court and surviving an abusive marriage off it, she’s learned how to conquer fear.
Easier said than done, because for Bolton, her worst nightmares came to life. And on Sunday, that nightmare will be the subject of a documentary, “Mighty Ruthie.”
“My strength became my weakness because I didn’t know how to give up — I didn’t know how to stop fighting,” Bolton said.
“Even when I went home with a black eye, there was nothing anybody could have said in that room that would have kept me from marrying him. Nothing. I know how to turn no into yes, I know how to fight, so how dare you tell me I can’t fight for something that’s mine?”
Bolton’s journey began in 1986 when former Tigers head coach Joe Ciampi — whose legacy is now enshrined in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame — recruited her out of McLain High School in Mississippi to play alongside her sister.
“In recruiting her, we knew she had ability, but she was overshadowed by her sister, Mae Ola, who was a year older and came to us a year prior to Ruthie,” Ciampi said. “Mae Ola was the shining star of the team, but Ruthie became the anchor.”
Ruthie Bolton arrived on campus with a chip on her shoulder. Not to be outworked, she quickly emerged from her sister’s shadow while earning the respect of her coaches and teammates in the process.
“She was incredible,” Bolton’s former teammate Heather Bassett Skelton said. “I remember when she first came, we didn’t think that she was going to be that good. I actually played her position, so I didn’t think of her as much competition, and then she just blew everyone away in the first week of conditioning. She finished first. She was faster than everybody. She was humble. She was just cool.”
Bolton wasn’t just the team’s best talent; she was its catalyst, and her energy was contagious to everyone around her.
“She blended everyone together,” Ciampi said. “She made them play team basketball, both offensively and defensively, and gave them that passion to win.”
Led by Bolton, the Auburn women’s basketball team experienced one of its most successful four-year stretches in school history. Ciampi’s Tigers went 119-13 with Bolton on the roster, including three SEC regular season championships, an SEC Tournament title (1987), three consecutive trips to the Final Four and three straight runner-up finishes in the national championship game spanning from 1988 to 1990.
To no one’s surprise, Bolton’s success didn’t stop there. She went on to win two Olympic gold medals — in 1996 and 2000 — and to play eight seasons in the WNBA with the Sacramento Monarchs as one of the league’s first premier players.
“The league is full of stars, and when Ruthie played in her heyday, she was a star,” said Carol Stiff, ESPN’s vice president of women’s sports programming.
Abusive husband
In 2011, it was Bolton’s turn to be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, but it wasn’t her most impressive feat.
Her biggest accomplishment came back in 2002, when she divorced her husband, Mark Holifield, and took back control of her life after enduring years of domestic violence.
“The moment that I found out, it took me to another level,” Mae Ola Bolton said. “When you never experience something, you don’t know how you’re going to respond or how you’re going to react, but I had never experienced domestic violence that close and personal. I didn’t really know what to say.
“I knew at the end of the day it was her decision. I wanted to really take her away from the situation, but I couldn’t, so I tried to do everything that I could from a sister standpoint to let her know that I love her.”
Bolton’s battle is chronicled in “Mighty Ruthie,” which will premiere Sunday at 8 p.m. on SEC Network as part of ESPN Films’ SEC Storied series.
An advance screening of the film was held Wednesday at the Auburn University Athletic Complex, and for those who saw it — former teammates, friends and family of Bolton’s — there’s no doubt about the true strength Bolton possesses.
“It was a great film,” Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “I think it’s a film that not just our female student-athletes, but every female in the country, as well as males, need to make sure that they take a look at. Ruthie is just so powerful.”
Everyone in the audience — both men and women — felt the impact of Bolton’s story.
“It takes a lot of courage to play intercollegiate athletics, we think, but for her to come out and talk about her experiences, that is the most courageous act that I can think of,” Auburn University Athletic Director Jay Jacobs said. “What a blessing it is for her to come out and show other women — and in my particular case, our current student athletes — that we can be vulnerable, but you can also be bold and you can speak the truth. I am just so proud that she’s an Auburn alum.”
For Bolton, the film represents her ultimate triumph, and the beginning of a new chapter in her life. She refuses let her past define her, and in the storybook that is her life, a new ending is hers to write.
“I’m glad that God has blessed me and allowed me to live through this experience and share and tell about it, because at one moment, I lost my worth as a woman,” Bolton said. “As a basketball player I didn’t, but as a female, as a woman, I did. And I’m thankful that through this film I can share [my experiences] with the world and hope it can inspire and empower some other women.”