Ruth Riley is the type of woman that stands out in a crowd. Not just because of her 6-foot-4 ½-inch height, either. Riley helped team USA win a women’s basketball gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece, helped her Notre Dame team win a national title and was part of two WNBA championships with the Detroit Shock. The first person to win the MVP award in both the NCAA and the WNBA championship games, Riley comes from humble beginnings. She was born in Ranson, Kansas, but spent most of her childhood growing up in Macy, Ind. Raised by her mother, Sharon Riley, Ruth Riley quickly learned her mother’s creative ways had a way of making her and her brother and sister feel like family was the strongest bond. Faith, hard work and respect were the foundation of her childhood and they are what helped mold Riley into the person she is today. Riley currently splits her time between Chicago, where she plays for the Chicago Sky, and Miami, where her WNBA career began.
Q: What made you decide on Notre Dame? Did the Final Four trip the year before you came influence your decision?
A: “Notre Dame was the only official visit I took, but the recruiting process was very difficult for me. All of the top women’s basketball programs were recruiting me quite actively, and there was a lot for me to consider. Ultimately, I just knew that Notre Dame was the right fit for me. It was the perfect combination of what I was looking for in a school. A good women’s basketball program, an instant comfort level with the head coach, the opportunity to be the student-athlete I wanted to become and a chance to continue to develop my faith and being so close to home were huge selling points for me. It was important to me that my family had the opportunity to come see me play.”
“I have an older sister, Rachel, and a younger brother, Jake and we are all very close. My sister ran cross country and played basketball, and my brother played football and basketball as well, but my brother and I share a similar passion for basketball.”
“Rachel is not just my older sister, she is my best friend as well. We were always competing against each other for the best grades, so it was only fitting that we ended up both attending Notre Dame.”
“My brother is my other half when it comes to basketball. We grew up playing many heated games of one-on-one, which continues, even today, every time we are together. Although it took him till my junior year in college to first beat me, I must say he is pretty tough competition now.”
Q: You were 25 inches long when you were born, so you were always taller than even the other babies in the nursery. You were 6-foot tall as a 12-year-old and 6-4 1/2 now. How have you dealt with that over the years?
A: “It’s a struggle for sure. At a young age I got a lot of unwanted attention. You get made fun of a lot, which made me become very shy and introverted. When I started playing sports there were high expectations that were placed on me, that I should be very good simply because of my height. This became a big source of frustration for me, because at the beginning I was not very good yet.”
“Playing sports was a great help for me, though, because it helped me to discover that I was not the only tall girl. Especially when I got to college, and I had friends who played on the women’s volleyball team who were actually taller than me, I realized that there were other tall women in the world. This helped me to become much more confident as a woman and as an athlete.”
Q: What’s it like being the first person to win MVP awards in the NCAA Tournament and WNBA Championship?
A: “Wow …. I would have thought that Sheryl Swoopes would have held such a record. It’s a huge honor, obviously. It means the work that I’ve put in to being an athlete has paid off; that I’ve managed to perform to my ability, at a high level, when it is needed most.”
Q: You best Notre Dame basketball memory?
A: “This one is kind of a no-brainer … the championship game in St. Louis in 2001. (Riley had 28 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks in the title game. She also made the final two free throws to seal the win over Purdue.) Being able to play in a championship game like that is truly the ultimate accomplishment of your athletic career. I was very blessed to have that be the last game of my collegiate career; so blessed to finish on top like that.”
Q: What was your biggest challenge at ND?
A: “Early on in my career, time management was a big challenge. Trying to maintain a high grade-point average and to excel on the court was very difficult, especially in my first two years. Notre Dame helped me learn how to manage that. They have a great resource system in place for their student-athletes. It is a huge adjustment, making the transition from a small-town high school to a big-time university. Practice, studying, going to class, plus all of the extra time that I personally spent in the gym … it takes some time to figure out how to juggle all of that and remain successful at the same time.”
Q: How do you remember your WNBA draft day?
A: “It was a complete whirlwind. The media coverage that I received and the realization that I was actually going to have the opportunity to play in the WBNA were quite overwhelming. Playing in the WNBA was a dream (and) a goal of mine and seeing that all came true was an ultimate high. It was great to meet some of the other girls at the selection show who were going through the same process. Most importantly, having my mom there made it all complete, because I couldn’t have done it without her love and support!”
Q: What was it like growing up in Kansas and Indiana? What was the culture shock like when you moved to Florida?
A: “It was the perfect time for me. I grew up in a sheltered environment, and college brought me a little bit out of that shell, but to go from South Bend, Ind., to South Beach (in Miami) really opened my eyes to the world. Being introduced to many different people and cultures helped me see the world, and ultimately myself, in a different way.”
Q: You have two years left on your WNBA contract with the Chicago Sky … what has been the highlight of your WNBA career so far?
A: “The two championship wins with Detroit in 2003 and 2006 were definite highlights for me. Something about the 2003 team was very unique. In 2002, Detroit had the worst record in the league. They brought in myself and a bunch of new players, to turn the franchise around and went from worst to first. That very seldom happens in sports, but when it does it is something pretty remarkable to watch, let alone be an active contributor to the success.”
“The opportunity to compete at the highest level of your craft, to compete against the top players of your sport, has to be one of the best highs of playing in the WNBA. My job is to play a game I love, and I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to do it for so long.”
“There are always going to be injuries, or shooting slumps, or losing streaks which can be difficult to overcome, but the highs definitely make up for them.”
“Off the court, the hardest thing is the time you lose with your family and friends. You have to miss weddings, birthdays and holidays because you are on the road or playing overseas. You don’t have the opportunity to spend the amount of time with them that you feel you should, but that is the price that you play to compete at that level.”
Q: You have an NCAA championship, Olympic gold medal, WNBA championship, the Naismith Award as the nation’s top collegiate player and the AP Player of the Year award. Which one was the hardest to win? Which one are you the most proud of?
A: “There is something unique about the college game, and the NCAA tournament. Sixty-four teams, one championship and being able to play against the best athletes in your age group … that experience is the most memorable for me. Also because it was the first championship that had ever I won. I had a big role on that team as a leader and they looked up to me to lead them towards accomplishing that.”
“In the pros I didn’t have the same kind of leading role because there were so many good players.”
Q: What was it like being inducted into the Academic All-American Hall of Fame?
A: “It was an unbelievable honor. I did not expect it at all. I feel very blessed that I was able to spend that evening, and share that moment, with my mom. Growing up she did not have the opportunities that I have been given, but she did her best to provide for us in any way that she could. She inspired me to dream big and to believe that I could do anything I wanted. Being able to share that night with her was very special to me.”
Q: You wrote a children’s book “The Spirit of Basketball,” that was given out before one of your Detroit WNBA games. Did you enjoy that experience and do you have any other plans to continue writing?
A: “Writing is something that I most definitely enjoy doing. Currently I have a blog (http://www.ruthriley.com/) and the blog posts that I write about are the things that I am most passionate about. I definitely plan on writing a book pretty soon. I want to tell my life story, but I also want to inspire people and make a difference in the world.”
Q: What are your plans after your basketball career ends?
A: “I still have two more years left and I really don’t know if at that time I will want to sign for another year or whether that will be it for me. My degree from Notre Dame is in psychology. I probably won’t go onto graduate school to continue studying psychology, but my passion is being able to work with people and in that respect I use my psychology degree every day.”
“There are several organizations that I am very active with right now, that will probably be a part of my transition from the WNBA to where my passion leads me next.”
“I want to use my platform to inspire others and to make a positive impact in the world.”
“Nothingbutnets is the UN Foundation’s global grassroots campaign to help eradicate malaria. The NBA/WNBA were founding partners, and likewise I have been a spokesperson since its launch in December of 2006.”
TRIAD Trust: Training to Reduce the Incidents of AIDS-related Deaths
“In June 2007, more than 4,500 orphans and vulnerable children were identified in the surrounding villages of Nkomazi, South Africa. Over 350 households were headed by children ages 16-18 and close to 5 percent of the population between the ages of 18 to 34 were HIV-positive. Since then, I have had the opportunity to travel with TRIAD Trust and take part in their sports programs. Our purpose is to identify and train young adult leaders within remote, impoverished communities so they can independently initiate fundamental health-enhancing behavior change. Through education and empowerment, we intend to create self-sustainable social improvement.”
“TRIAD Trust takes a comprehensive approach to reducing the affects and instances of this AIDS pandemic. It targets children and young adults who are most vulnerable to AIDS, and has created programs using sports (basketball & soccer), music, drama, photography, and journalism as an avenue to develop trust and relationships within the community. Our sports programs work to teach the fundamentals of team-building, conflict resolution, sportsmanship, skills mastery, self-esteem, and knowledge of HIV/AIDS and healthy lifestyles. Not only do we work to educate players and coaches about how to prevent contracting HIV, but we work to de-stigmatize those who have the virus.”
“Most people have mental pictures of starving children in Africa when the issue of poverty and hunger are raised—you might be surprised to learn that there are actually more than 16 million American children who do not have reliable access to the nutritious food they need to lead healthy, active lives. Recently I had the opportunity to represent the NBA/WNBA in Chicago at the Illinois No Kid Hungry Campaign launch.”
“This is an issue that hits close to home for me, because my family benefited from free and reduced lunch programs when I was growing up. My mom did everything she could to raise my brother, sister and I, often working two jobs while raising us on her own, but sometimes there just was not enough money to go around. The free and reduced lunch program at my elementary school made sure that my siblings and I had a nutritious meal that my mom could not always afford herself.”
“Share Our Strength is a national nonprofit committed to ending childhood hunger in America by making sure that children in need are enrolled in federal programs, it invests in community organizations fighting hunger, teaches families how to cook healthy meals on a budget, and builds public-private partnerships to end hunger on a national and state level. The NBA/WNBA are committed to working with Share Our Strength to connect more than 50,000 youth to free meals this summer across the United States. (http://www.nba.com/caravan/nokidhungry.html)”
Q: Do you have any advice for girls who are playing sports in today’s society?
A: “What I would say first is to dream big. Secondly, work really hard to achieve those goals. There is so much opportunity for young girls today. Society pressures you to act or look a certain way and people are quick to tell you that your dreams are not possible … I would tell them to keep working and go for what you want.”
“I am so proud of how far women and sports have come since Title IX was put into place. What I’m most passionate about is the platform that sports and athletics gives women. Without sports, I would have never been able to achieve all that I have achieved. Most people want to do something good, they just don’t make it a priority. Everyone has an area of influence, they don’t realize that all it takes is a little time, so much can be done with just using our time to invest in others. I love the fact that I have a platform in which to inspire other people to help.”
A big thank you goes out to Ruth Riley for stopping by the blog. If you want to learn more about Ruth, please visit her web site RuthRiley.com. Next up on “Where Are They Now?” is Notre Dame linebacker, Devon McDonald.