Ruthie made good on all her promises in '96

One of the highlights of my sports writing career was covering the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The highlight of those Games was covering McLain’s Ruthie Bolton, as she led the gold medal-winning U.S. Women’s Basketball team to victory after victory. Ruthie Bolton, pound for pound, is the toughest competitor I have seen. Basketball coaches talk about loose balls as 50-50 balls. They weren’t 50-50 in Atlanta. They were all Ruthie’s. I am so happy she is part of our Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2014. Here’s what I wrote on the day the U.S. won the Gold.

 

ATLANTA — McLain’s Ruthie Bolton was a woman of her word Sunday. She made three promises. She delivered.

First, she vowed that she’d help the U.S. women’s basketball team win the Olympic gold medal. She scored 15 points, made five steals, passed out five assists and corralled five rebounds. She was the spark that helped burn Brazil 111-87.

Second, she promised to dedicate the medal to her deceased mother. She tearfully did that while embracing her father after the game.

Third, she promised to give the medal to her older sister and former Auburn teammate, Mae Ola Bolton. She did that, too, going up into the stands after the medal ceremony.

“I thought she was just coming up to hug me,” Mae Ola Bolton said, the shiny gold medal hanging from her neck. “I didn’t expect the medal. I don’t have the words to describe the feeling.”

Mae Ola Bolton cried when asked about a framed picture of her mother that she and her father, the Rev. Linwood Bolton, alternately held up so Ruthie could see it from the medal stand.

“You just have to know our family. There’s so much love,” she said. “We had a wonderful mother, and we don’t let her die. We wanted her here with us tonight. She remains daily in our prayers.”

Leola Bolton, mother of 20, died in January of 1995 of cancer.

Mae Ola was one of Ruthie’s 10 siblings at the gold medal game. She estimated that 40 nieces and nephews were also there. Ruthie Bolton gave them all — and an international TV audience — a show.

“I never visualized anything but a gold medal,” Ruthie Bolton said. “I wasn’t going to settle for anything else.”

She nailed a shot from four steps beyond the 3-point arc for the Americans’ first points, and she was a primary reason why the Brazilians couldn’t sag their defense down around U.S. center Lisa Leslie, who finished with 29 points.

But it was Bolton’s defense that hurt the Brazilians most. She defended Brazilian point guard Maria Paula Silva — known as Magic Paula to Brazilian fans. Silva was averaging 16.5 points per game beforehand. She was 1 for 8 and scored just seven against the Americans. Her one field goal came when Bolton was taking a breather.

Afterwards, a reporter asked Bolton how she was able to accomplish all that.

“What did I do?” Bolton said, breaking into a smile. “I was in her pants, that’s what. I was all over her. If she had gone to the bathroom, I was going with her.”

One of Bolton’s five steals was a clean, mid- court theft from Brazilian superstar Hortencia Oliva. Bolton flicked the ball away from Oliva, went hard to her knees to retrieve it and then shoveled a perfect pass to Sheryl Swoopes for an easy layup.

When Bolton left the game with 8:16 remaining, she exited to a standing ovation from the Georgia Dome crowd of 32,997.

Afterward, U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer called Bolton “an incredibly special woman.”

“I love her dearly,” VanDerveer said. “Nobody works harder. She’s an inspiration to me every day in practice. To tell you the truth, I’m just proud to know her.”

In winning the gold, the U.S. women completed nearly a year together. They finished with a 60-0 record and raised interest in U.S. women’s basketball to an all-time high.

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