On International Women's Day, the theme is Choose To Challenge, and there is no woman who chooses to challenge everyone and every day like Ruthie Bolton. Bolton, a two-time Olympic gold medallist with Team USA, WNBA Hall of Famer and former Sacramento Monarchs player, put a pep in my step after sitting with her for 30-35 minutes.
So, we start at the beginning, growing up in Mississippi with 19 other children and her two parents. “This is the start of so many conversations. It was such a huge foundation”, she beams over a Zoom call. “To see the years passing by and looking at the things that I’ve done in between, they’re things that led me back to here.
“I know I owe it to my foundation and my family, faith, and really just that family support. We do a Zoom call with all my sisters every Saturday. It’s a sister to sister, but anybody. We reminisce about growing up doing this and playing this game, and I think our parents would think they did a pretty good job, but we all still love each other. We all appreciate each other. I think it’s really great.”
Family, according to Ruthie, can mean so many different things. Life experience has taught her that she was fortunate with her family, but really, the definition of family can encapsulate everyone. “Your family could be an adopted family, but whoever you know that you could trust with your life. You could trust in that someone to give you that moral support, and that’s a family, so that foundation, whatever that foundation is, is important”.
Having bigger brothers and sisters also meant something else: she needed to be really good at basketball to survive 19 siblings. “When I think about a lot of women that I do know that are athletes, they all got older brothers, but women mature faster than boys.”. Given it’s International Women’s Day, she tells a story about a camp she coached in with the Golden State Warriors.
“I coached a girls’ 13-year-old team against a boys’ 13-year-old, and they had played a couple of days prior, every time they came close to winning, that third and final day, we beat the boys. We celebrated because it was so beautiful. Those girls whipped them. To see them like, ‘Yes, baby, girl power’s in the house.’ I was acting like a little kid myself”.
Leadership is something that pops up routinely during our conversation, and Ruthie admits that growing up, she wasn’t always a loud, outspoken leader with bravado and arrogance, and sometimes in sport, that’s okay.
“I’d be quiet the whole time, but I’d been listening. I asked questions and was really learning. I became a quiet leader, leading by example. More like if I can do it, you can do it too. On a team, when I’m talking to athletes, I don’t expect every girl to be the same. I don’t expect you to be loud and outspoken, as I wasn’t, but I led in such a way that was quiet in a way where, ‘Wow, she [is] inviting us in to do as she did, I feel like I’m a leader, but I’m not like her.’ I said, ‘There are different types of leaders.’ I said, ‘Embrace who you are and where you are’”.
Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that without basketball, Ruthie wouldn’t have found her voice, and she wouldn’t have lived the experiences that shaped her today. “It makes the world seem so small, but basketball has been the catalyst. It’s been this stage for me to reach to do so many things. That’s where I found myself. Through my insecurities, through my uncertainties, basketball provided this community, this space for me to discover something about me and to be able to play the game college, professionally, the Olympics.”
Her father, a preacher in Mississippi, also provided her with inspiration whenever things got tough. “To have done the things I’ve done by just really digging deep inside of me and having my father by my side whispering in my ear just saying, ‘You’ve got this,’ and, ‘Keep a positive attitude. Life is 10 per cent of what happens to you, 90 per cent how you respond to it.” Over and over again, he would share these things with me, and he would put it on every door in the house”. As Ruthie admits herself, her dad foreseeing her greatness, instilled quiet confidence within her, but as she says herself, her father only prepared the table for her. It was up to her to eat.
Ruthie’s challenge to everyone is to be vulnerable and share their story to encourage others and shed anything that could hold you back. “Well, we’re not taught to share too much personal stuff. I said listen, ‘You know what, throw it out the window,’ because I’ve been on the other side of insecurity when I went through my abuse and being [a victim of] domestic violence.
“I went through that side of just not being worthy and feeling like it was my fault. When someone comes to me, talking to me in a nice suit and telling me and stuff, I ain’t hearing it. If you can relate to me and connect with me, that’s what I want to hear. If you give a person your heart, they’ll give you their hand.”
Basketball Ireland and the Jr NBA recently launched a four-part documentary series featuring two-time Olympic gold medallist and two-time WNBA All-Star Ruthie Bolton. The topics discussed in this interview coincide with the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum that is currently in place. Basketball Ireland is encouraging any SPHE, Transition Year, PE teachers and basketball coaches to check out the Basketball Ireland website for more information on how to avail of the resource.