‘I lived in fear.’ Former WNBA star Ruthie Bolton says she escaped a violent marriage

Ruthie Bolton opens up about the abuse in her marriage

Former WNBA star Ruthie Bolton endured threats and beatings from her husband for more than a decade. Now she is speaking out in hopes of preventing abuse of other women.
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Former WNBA star Ruthie Bolton endured threats and beatings from her husband for more than a decade. Now she is speaking out in hopes of preventing abuse of other women.

‘Tonight may be the night he kills me, Ruthie Bolton remembers thinking as her husband called to her from their living room.

“Get in here,” he said. “I’m not going to ask you again.”

From the kitchen, she could see him sitting with a gun in one hand and a beer in the other.

For nearly a decade, “Mighty Ruthie” Bolton, an Olympic Gold medalist and star player for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs, had felt trapped in an abusive marriage. Now, on a night in 2002 in the couple’s home in Gainesville, Fla., Bolton feared Mark Holifield might do something more than hit her.

She decided to make a run for it. Barefooted, she slipped out a side door and into the darkness. She phoned her friend and mentor Carol Ross, who picked her up on a nearby roadside. Bolton later would file for divorce, ending her relationship with Holifield for good.

Until recently, Bolton kept the painful details mostly to herself. But the recent release of an ESPN documentary that details that chapter of her life has given her a new platform, one that she hopes will empower and uplift girls and women with a message that transcends athletics. Bolton is speaking out across the country about living with, and escaping, domestic violence.

Holifield denies her allegations of abuse.

“I don’t want this to be a pity party,” Bolton, 50, told an audience of about 500 people at a recent screening of the film, “Mighty Ruthie,” at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.

“Please don’t feel sorry for me,” she said. “Because my story has a happy ending.”

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Lisa Lax, director of the ESPN documentary “Mighty Ruthie” sits with Ruthie Bolton, the former pro basketball player and Olympian, at the Golden 1 Center on June 6, 2017. Bolton recently has been speaking out about the domestic violence she said she suffered during her first marriage. Jose Luis Villegas

Her life with Holifield, a former law enforcement officer, began happily enough after she met him when she was a student and basketball star at Auburn University in Alabama. Holifield was charming and funny and gentle at first, she said. He hit her for the first time in 1991, she said, a few months after they married.

It happened in Virginia, where she was training to be an officer in the Army Reserves. She had made the mistake of telling him that another man had made a pass at her.

He slapped her, hard, across the face, she recalled. Bolton was stunned. Holifield, a tall sheriff’s deputy with hazel eyes, had never seemed violent, she said.

“I was so in love with him, I felt it must be my fault,” Bolton said in a recent interview. “Like I deserved it.” She was sure it would never happen again.

Bolton was on the precipice of greatness in her sport, despite her relatively diminutive size. She was 5 foot 8, but made made up for her lack of height with an abundance of quickness, agility and a determination she learned from her parents, pastor Linwood Bolton and his wife Leola.

Ruthie and her sister MaeOla, two of 20 siblings, grew up in the tiny town of McClain in southern Mississippi. Both became stars at Auburn, one of the nation’s most storied women’s basketball programs.

Ruthie would go on to play professionally overseas, and twice win gold medals for Team USA during the Olympic games in Atlanta and Sydney. She was selected to join the Sacramento Monarchs during the WNBA’s inaugural season in 1997. She became a Hall of Famer. Her name will soon be added to the Sacramento Walk of Stars, which honors the accomplishments of celebrities and others who have called the region home.

But for a decade, unbeknownst to her friends, teammates and fans, Bolton’s personal life was a disaster.

The abuse, she said, was subtle at first. Holifield “wanted to know who I was with, and what I was doing, at all times,” she said. “He was very jealous.”

Jealousy escalated into cruelty, she said, and physical violence. She said she told no one that her husband degraded her accomplishments, yanked her hair and called her hateful names. She stayed silent, she said, about his ugly blowups when she was few minutes late for a movie or brought home the wrong brand of juice from the store.

Holifield, in a telephone interview with The Bee, denied ever hurting Bolton. “It’s totally false,” he said. “Me and Ruthie never had any physical contact. It never happened.”

He said he plans to hire a lawyer to challenge the allegations she has talked about publicly. “I’ll sing like the Temptations,” he said, “and unlike Ruthie’s allegations, I can prove mine.”

Bolton stands firmly behind her story.

Ross, a former assistant coach at Auburn who had become a good friend of Bolton’s while both were later living in Gainesville, long suspected something was amiss. “She had to check in with Mark repeatedly, and she would become unnerved if she couldn’t do it,” Ross said. “She constantly worried about how he was feeling, what his mood would be like. To me, this was not normal.”

But Bolton guarded her privacy, even after Holifield began threatening her with guns, she said.

Bolton said she reported her husband’s abuse only once, in 1996. Holifield was charged with misdemeanor domestic battery, records show, but the charges were dropped. Bolton never pursued the case, she said, in part because Holifield was in law enforcement and she questioned whether anyone would believe her.

Basketball was Bolton’s escape. On the court, she had the love and support of teammates and coaches, and she thrived. In 1996, Bolton and her Olympic team won the gold medal in Atlanta. Bolton was a darling of the 1996 squad, leading the team with 23 steals. The following year she joined the Monarchs, and became a cornerstone of the franchise. In her first season, she scored more than 19 points and grabbed nearly six rebounds per game.

Playing professional basketball in America was a dream come true. But her joy would dissipate, she said, when she would look into the stands at Arco Arena and see her husband, whom she said was a heavy drinker. “Every day that he didn’t hit me felt like a good day,” she said.

Bolton resided most of the year in Gainesville, where she and Holifield had a house and where her sister MaeOla and Ross lived. She also maintained an apartment in Sacramento.“I lived in fear,” she said. “It felt like I was trying to live two lives. I felt like a failure. I believed the devil wanted my marriage to fail, and I did not want him to win.

“I was used to fixing things,” she said. “I wanted to fix this.”

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Ruthie Bolton, the former pro basketball player and Olympian, spoke out about surviving domestic violence at the Golden 1 Center on June 6, 2017. Jose Luis Villegas

Filled with guilt and shame for being “a bad wife,” she said, she tried to please her husband by weighing her every word and “not messing up.” But no matter how hard she tried to appease him, she said, nothing worked. Finally, she persuaded Holifield to attend counseling with her, and their relationship improved a bit. But the effect was temporary.

“He started hitting me again,” she said. At the urging of the counselor, she quietly packed an emergency “escape bag” filled with a change of clothes and other essentials and gave it to Ross.

In 1997, six years after they married, Bolton and Holifield decided to renew their wedding vows. Perhaps the ceremony, Bolton thought, would bring new life to their marriage and demonstrate her commitment to Holifield.

On the way to the church in Mississippi, Bolton said, Holifield cracked her across the face. Her eye swelled, and for the first time, her family pushed for answers.

At first, she told them she had bumped into a door. Then she confessed that Holifield had hit her. But he was sorry, she said, and she remained determined to save her marriage. “I wasn’t hearing God telling me to leave yet,” Bolton said. “I thought maybe my punishment was over, and I could be happy now.”

Her father listened, and gave her some advice. “If he ever threatens your life,” he pleaded, “please take it seriously.”

Later that day, Bolton renewed her vows to Holifield. MaeOla stood beside her as her maid of honor.

“I felt like I was the biggest hypocrite in the world,” MaeOla Bolton said in a phone interview. “I told my family, ‘We have let her down. We should have done something more to stop this.’ 

Ruthie Bolton’s friends and family members said something within her changed on the night she left Holifield for good in 2002.

“She called me, very upset and scared, and asked if I could come and get her,” Ross recalled. “That was her real cry for help. It brought everything out into the open. I was involved. I wanted answers. I wanted to talk about it.”

Ross sheltered Bolton at her home for “a long time,” she said. “She had to break the cycle.”

‘Recovery and forgiveness’

At a private gym in Orangevale on a recent afternoon, beneath a framed replica of her Sacramento Monarchs jersey, Ruthie Bolton stood in her comfort zone. Young girls streaked across the hardwood, their sneakers squeaking, their dribbles echoing across the court.

“Understand why you are missing your shots, OK?” she instructed the adolescent girls. They stopped and listened intently. They were lucky, they said, to be learning the game from a pro, one of the most accomplished women’s basketball players of her time.

But Bolton’s life, she said, is about so much more than basketball now.

“At the end of the day, maybe these girls won’t play in the WNBA,” she said. “But I want them to remember that Ruthie taught them about believing in themselves, about overcoming challenges and having the confidence to never allow someone to abuse them. I want them to feel like they are powerful.”

Former Sacramento Monarchs star Ruthie Bolton shoots a selfie with several of her young basketball players who she coaches following a practice session on June 12 in Orangevale. Randy Pench rpench@sacbee.com

Bolton has come a long way, she said, but she is still processing her story. Why did she choose an abusive partner? Why did she stay with him? Why did she never pursue charges against him? Her path is not an uncommon one, according to advocates for people living in violent relationships. Victims often feel it is more dangerous for them to flee an abusive partner than to stay in the relationship and try to repair it.

“I am on the road to recovery and forgiveness,” Bolton said earlier this month. “I’m not completely there yet, but every time I talk about it I get a little closer. I have a voice now.”

The ESPN documentary, which premiered in Auburn more than a year ago, has been shown at various venues around the country since then. Bolton has attended the gatherings, answered questions and spoken on panels about domestic violence. She has heard from women whose experiences “were far worse than mine,” she said. A few have told her that her story inspired them to get help, or leave abusive relationships.

“If this can help save one person’s life, it will be worth it,” Bolton said.

As she ended her training session with the girls in Orangevale, she gathered them for a pep talk. It’s OK to be imperfect, she said. It’s OK to make mistakes.

“You’re going to fall flat on your face before you develop into who you really are,” she said.

Bolton is remarried now. She and her husband, Cesar Lara, have two children, Hope, 8, and Christofer, 5. Their home, on a quiet street not far from the arena where she played with the Monarchs, is filled with stuffed animals and family photos. Bolton’s many awards and honors decorate the walls.

“Ruthie has moved on,” said Ross, the former coach. “She has accomplished a lot, and she has more to do. Most importantly, she is still here with us. Because given what she went through, we could easily have lost her.”

Bolton agreed.

The ESPN film, she said, at the Sacramento screening “is an avenue toward healing.”

“I’m thankful that I lived to tell about what happened to me.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

Upcoming Ruthie Bolton events

Ruthie Bolton’s name will be added to the Sacramento Walk of Stars at an event in September. She will be coaching at Bobby Jackson’s Kings Legends Basketball Camp on July 8, and is scheduled to be at the author’s booth at the California State Fair, signing her books “The Ride of a Lifetime,” and “From Pain to Power” on July 16. “Mighty Ruthie,” the ESPN documentary based on her life, is available on iTunes.