An Olympic Gold Medalist Opens Up About Her Domestic Abuse

Photo: Courtesy of Safe horizon.
Refinery29 is pleased to partner with Safe Horizon to to bring our readers real stories from domestic violence survivors and anti-domestic-violence advocates. Ahead, Safe Horizon CEO Ariel Zwang shares the story of Olympic gold medalist and domestic violence survivor Ruthie Bolton.

Competing in the Olympics should be a dream come true. But for basketball player Ruthie Bolton, it was hard to enjoy her success when her life at home was a nightmare.

In 1996, Bolton was a star of the United States women’s basketball team, training for hours every day in preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. But every night, and throughout their marriage, her then-husband would go to bed next to her with a gun.
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Bolton tells me that her husband’s warning — that he had the gun "in case you try something" — was loud and clear. Over time, she actually got so used to his guns that she even bought him one for his birthday. "It was like a psychological thing," she says. "In my mind, there was no way, if he ever tried to hurt me, that he would shoot me with the gun I bought him."

"In my mind there was no way, if he ever tried to hurt me, that he would shoot me with the gun I bought him"

Yet, guns actually place domestic violence victims at great risk. Statistics show that domestic violence is more likely to turn deadly when an abusive partner has access to firearms, and firearms increase the risk of intimate partner homicide more than five times.

But Bolton was determined to make her marriage work. Looking back, she feels that her mentality of "work hard and defy the odds," her biggest strength on the basketball court, was her biggest weakness at home. At Safe Horizon, we know that Bolton did not contribute to the abuse perpetrated against her: Abuse is a choice an abuser makes and is never the fault of the victim. But in Bolton’s heart, she felt that if she just worked at her marriage hard enough, her husband would see how much she loved him, and things would get better.

They didn’t get better. As an Olympic champion, Bolton should’ve felt on the top of the world. Instead, she believed she had failed. “At one point, I felt like throwing my Olympic gold medals away," she recalls. "I felt like I didn’t deserve them because I couldn’t keep my home happy. My husband was constantly upset with me. It was hard. The world seemed to be proud of me, but at home, I was miserable.”

After shattering glass ceilings for women in sports, Bolton is now shattering the silence around the domestic violence she endured for years so that her story of survival can help others. That’s why she is painting the nail of her left ring-finger purple — the color of the anti-domestic violence movement — to declare her vow to help end domestic violence. The painted fingernail represents her support for Safe Horizon’s #PutTheNailinIt campaign, which has already touched the lives of millions.

I was honored to speak with Bolton recently about her experience with domestic violence as a basketball player, a women, and an Olympian. Read on for highlights from that inspiring interview.
Photo: Courtesy of Safe horizon.
How common do you think domestic violence is in the Olympics?
"I think it’s very common in the Olympics, because it’s very common in general. I used to think that domestic violence was just when someone hits you. There were days when he didn’t hit me, and I thought it was a great day. It didn’t matter what he said to me or the foul names he called me. My thinking was, Wow, he didn’t hit me, we had a great day! Now I know that domestic violence can also be verbal."

Was basketball an outlet for you to cope with the abuse you faced at home?
"Basketball was a huge escape. I felt like my hands were tied at home, but on the court, my teammates validated me, championed me, and celebrated me. Early in my career, overseas, I hadn’t quite blossomed into the player I knew I could one day become. But I defied the odds and exceeded expectations!"
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At Safe Horizon, we know there are many reasons why a woman may stay in a violent relationship for a time. What kept you in that relationship for over a decade?
"He was my first love. I loved him. Even today, I am not telling my story to bash him. That’s not my goal. My goal is to raise awareness.

"Be careful when you ask a victim, 'Why don’t you just leave?' As a victim, you still want to protect your partner. And the more others try to bash them, the more you cling to them.

"Even when I went to renew my vows after six years of marriage, I went home with a black eye. There is nothing anyone could have told me that day to get me to leave the relationship."

There is nothing anyone could have told me that day to get me to leave the relationship

What is your advice for other women in abusive relationships?
"If you’re in a situation where [you’re just not ready to take action], put someone else in that chair. Sometimes women, we do feel like we deserve it, but think about someone you truly love: your child, or your niece, sister, mother. What if they were going through that? If they were in that same chair, what would you say to them?

"My dad gave me very important advice that I’ll never forget. He said, 'People outside are not going to understand, but you will know when you’ve had enough. So, if you need to fight for your marriage, fight for it. But the moment he ever threatens you, threatens your life… Daughter, please don’t take it lightly.'"

People see you as a strong woman, in particular physically strong, and might wonder “Why didn’t you just fight back?” What do you say to that?
"I get that question a lot. I never attempted to fight back at all — I saw that as disrespectful. I just attempted to protect myself by holding my hands up. Abuse is a different thing than a fight. I didn’t look at it as a fight. It was just a situation I had to get through. In my mind, if I didn’t fight back, it would be over sooner."

Why are you partnering with Safe Horizon to take the #PutTheNailinIt vow to end domestic violence?
"I want women to know that no matter what you’ve done, you don’t deserve to be beaten. You are loved and worthy.

"I take the vow because it’s an act of courage and strength for me. I hope that through #PutTheNailinIt, anyone going through abuse can find courage to find support."
Safe Horizon’s #PutTheNailinIt campaign asks people to support survivors of abuse and take a stand against domestic violence. Have you taken the #PutTheNailinIt vow to end domestic violence? Visit www.putthenailinit.org to learn how your vow can help victims become survivors.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, you can call Safe Horizon's hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE or visit its website.
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