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'I Didn't Know Whether Victory Was Leaving Or Staying'

In a room full of supportive strangers, Ruthie Bolton revealed that she had been abused by her former husband. Eddie Perlas/ESPN Images

DANA POINT, Calif. -- The moment that Ruthie Bolton was about to say the thing that she'd never said publicly before, she stopped and paused for a long time.

Her hands went to her face, her fingers trying to stop the tears from coming out of her eyes. Somebody sitting close by handed her a glass of water.

"I was living in an abusive marriage," Bolton told a packed room Thursday at the espnW Women + Sports Summit. "I could do whatever I wanted on the basketball court, I could defend an opponent, or hit a big shot, but I couldn't get a grasp on my personal life."

Bolton was an Olympic and a WNBA All-Star, with a 15-year career in professional basketball. And she says she kept her secret from all but her closest friends and family. She said she was being beaten routinely by her then-husband. It could come over the smallest thing, like a missed ingredient in the meal she was cooking. And there were times, she said, she feared for her life.

"I didn't know whether victory was leaving or staying," Bolton said. "It was a tough place for me."

Bolton started this difficult conversation in front of a room full of strangers by talking about her basketball career: the way she'd persevered after not being recruited out of high school, the way she pushed her way onto the roster at Auburn when the player they really wanted was her older sister, the way she ended up as an unlikely selection to the U.S. national team in 1996.

Bolton wanted to drive home the point that adversity had always made her stronger, and she thought she could apply that to her troubled marriage. She wanted to "fix" it the same way she could fix a problem on the court, by sticking with things and working harder.

But the stubborn work ethic that worked for her on the court put her in peril at home.

She said she felt guilty, that it was her "responsibility."

"I fought for my marriage like I fought for my career,'' Bolton said. "I felt like I could make it work."

Bolton said her then-husband was her first love, the first boyfriend she'd ever had. She said he did not become abusive until after they were married. But she described a life of fear, disappointment and self-doubt.

Bolton said she spent many days trying not to make a mistake that would provoke an "explosion."

When she was playing abroad in Turkey, she said she would go to practice with her teammates and feel like she didn't want to go home after it was over because "I didn't know what it was going to be like."

Bolton said she kept a bag packed with a change of clothing and money in case she needed to leave.

She said she did not tell her teammates or coaches what was happening. Bolton said she only told her family about the abuse after the Olympic Games in 1996, when her brother noticed marks on her face. She told selected friends and a counselor and said she felt like "a terrible wife."

Still, she said she and her husband renewed their wedding vows after the Olympics and she continued to live in fear. And defiance. She said she did not want to be a "statistic of divorce."

"The more people would tell me to leave, the more it made me want to stay, the more I was going to fight to make it work," Bolton said. "I felt like I had to fix it."

She said it wasn't until he threatened to kill her that she finally was able to leave.

She knows now that she didn't "love herself enough."

"It's a very lonely place to be," she said.

Earlier in the afternoon, before she went into the panel discussion, Bolton -- who is now remarried and has two young children -- was asked why she is coming forward with her story now.

"Timing is everything," Bolton said. "I'm not speaking as a victim. I don't have resentments. I've prayed for him to have the best in his life. But I want people to see that abuse doesn't have a color or an age or a status. I lived through it and I'm glad I lived to tell about it."

Bolton is participating in a documentary being made about her life and career, which has yet to be released, and she said she discussed being abused during the filming. But Thursday's panel marked the first time she's spoken publicly about her experience. After the panel, Bolton said she realized she still has strong feelings. And it surprised her when they bubbled to the surface as she was about to make her admission.

"It took me back to that place of sadness," Bolton said. "I still have a lot of disappointment in that experience. I didn't think it would be easy, but I didn't think I would cry. It was harder than I thought it would be."

But Bolton is now vowing to be more vocal as the topic of domestic violence remains in the forefront.

"I feel a sense of relief," Bolton said. "I had that wall up for a long time. I'm happy I did it and I just hope it will help someone."