Pioneers: Ruth Harker, The Goaltender With a Heart of Gold
INTRODUCING: Ruth Harker
COLLEGE: University of Missouri-St. Louis
PAYING HER WAY: Though her brother was supported in his desire to play sports growing up in the Bridgeton Terrace neighborhood long since taken over by airport expansion in St. Louis, Ruth was encouraged to be a cheerleader. She wanted no part of it. “I was Forrest Gump as a kid, running everywhere I went,” said Ruth. “My body and mind just needed to be in motion. But my mother didn’t believe girls should play sports.” Finally, when Ruth entered high school, her mother agreed to let her join a local soccer team, as well as the track, cross country, volleyball and basketball teams at the high school — as long as Ruth earned the money for cab fare to get to and from games and practices.
AN UNLIKELY GOALIE: The running drew Ruth to soccer, but her lack of experience dribbling and shooting the ball led her coach, Marge Rosenthal, to give her a try as goaltender. Having been born blind in one eye, which she kept a secret from teammates and coaches, she struggled at first with depth perception. “I still remember the first goal I ever gave up,” said Ruth, who is featured prominently in the book “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” in the chapter focused on adversity. “The ball bounced in front of me, and then right over my head and into the back of the net. After that, I just tried to anticipate where the ball was going to be and made sure I got there first.” Within a year she was recognized for her fearlessness and talent and was invited to international competitions in Sweden.
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Between her junior and senior seasons as a starter at UMSL, where she was team captain and MVP, Ruth traveled to the Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, La., in July of 1985 and earned one of the 17 spots on the first-ever U.S. Women’s National Team from coach Mike Ryan. When she entered the game as a replacement for Kim Wyant in the third and fourth games in National Team history, Aug. 23rd and 24th against England and Denmark, Ruth earned her only two career appearances (known in National Team parlance as CAPs). “I’m guessing I had the shortest overall soccer career of any National Teamer in history,” said Ruth, an engineer who now serves as vice president of Swan Packaging, a food-service company. “Since I didn’t even start playing until I was 14, and retired at 22, my entire run only lasted eight years. After that, I needed to go get a job.”
AN AUTHENTIC LIFE: Just prior to her selection to the National Team, Ruth started coming to terms with aspects of herself she had never explored previously. “In hindsight, I look back at my childhood and think about those crushes on (female) camp counselors,” she said. “There were crushes on my friends. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. I was taught girls were supposed to be with guys so, of course, I dated a guy in college. It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I acted my true feelings with a woman.” Still, living in a conservative midwestern community, she didn't feel truly accepted by her mother and hid her true identity from many people for many years thereafter. She shares a dramatic story on Pages 206-207 of the book in which she needed to defend herself from a man who objected to her appearance at a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game.
GIVING BACK: “When you grew up like I did . . . poor, gay, confused . . . it leads to a lot of thoughts of depression and even worse, suicide,” said Ruth. “To the degree that I can help others from sharing my story, my experiences and the gifts that life has given me, that’s my primary focus now.” Ruth has served on the board of Easter Seals and is well known among the generations of National Team teammates for her generosity and compassion. When Michelle Akers’ horse rescue farm was in dire financial condition and the legendary player was selling many of her trophies and gold medals to raise money, Ruth was among the players who bought the items from Michelle, gave her the money, and then returned the memorabilia. Heading out to the 2019 National Team reunion held in Los Angeles in honor of the 20th anniversary of the 1999 World Cup champions, Ruth stopped in Chicago to pick up Preston Klug, a 12-year-old goalie suffering from a brain tumor. “My teammates made him feel like king for the day,” said Ruth, who is happy to report that, two years later, Preston is doing well.
THE LEGACY: Ruth is a huge fan of the current iteration of the National Team, calling out Sam Mewis for her humor, Alex Morgan for her generosity and Megan Rapinoe for stating aloud what’s been true for the National Team since the beginning: “You can win without the gays, baby! That’s science right there.” Ruth also holds a kindred feeling of warmth toward fellow goaltender Adrianna Franch, a woman who has likewise had to endure gender-based taunting and discrimination based on her appearance. “I just really like her; she’s such a good human being,” said Ruth. “Adrianna is so personable and really seems to appreciate and understand the role that the pioneers played in opening the doors for the women who came afterward.”
MOMMY'S GIRL: With her step-father, Ezra Barton, having passed away on Jan. 17 of this year, Ruth's mother, Kathy, was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Ruth is thankful for the time they have been able to share together in recent weeks, including conversations that have helped heal old wounds. "My mother believed what she believed back in those days and I don't blame her for that," said Ruth, who was elected to the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame in 2019 and her college’s Hall of Fame last year. "My mom is tough, ferocious really. And, before she met my 'Pops,' she was a single mother who got four children through college. She clearly did something right."