The Women of Gay Games 9

As with everything else in her life, Mollie Marr is very focused in her swimming practice. | RYAN HOWE

As with everything else in her life, Mollie Marr is very focused in her swimming practice. | RYAN HOWE

In the corner of Saint Alps Teahouse, on Third Avenue at East 10th Street, Mollie Marr sat focused. The teapot in front of her steamed as she skimmed through a large textbook. Two hair barrettes held back her bangs from falling in her face as she studied.

Marr, 32, is preparing for the Medical College Admission Test. She is also training for an early August triathlon and then to compete in Gay Games 9, held August 9-16 in Cleveland.

“I actually think I have the perfect way to balance everything I am doing,” Marr said as she sipped on her tea. “I’m using my exercise as a way of structuring my study time.”

Every day after her 9-to-5 job as a clinical researcher, Marr studies for a couple of hours before she works out — swimming, running, or biking — and then hits the books again before she goes to bed.

It’s a balancing act with most of her attention spent on MCAT studies until she takes the test on July 2. On July 3, however, her focus will shift to strength-building as she prepares for the Gay Games. A newbie, Marr heard about the Games through her involvement with Team New York Aquatics.

Focus, commitment, and practice, practice, practice on the road to Cleveland

With chatter about the Games percolating at practices and among teammates, Marr approached the coach to see if she was ready to go to the Games and compete.

“I have never even competed at a meet and I’m not used to diving off the blocks or doing flip turns,” she explained. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to get there and get disqualified and embarrass the team, and they will never let me swim with them again, and I’ll be mortified.’ When I asked the head coach, he looked at me and said, ‘Why are you asking? Of course, go sign up.’”

Marr joined TNYA last October, but her love of the water began early in life. When she was eight years old, she tried to join a swim team, but the pool, fed by creek water, was too cold and during her first practice she got hypothermia. After that, she was done.

But she found many other things to keep herself occupied. Described by friends and family as never doing anything half-assed, Marr has always been competitive. In high school, she was the youngest person to make the varsity debate team and still holds the school’s record for 32 consecutive undefeated debates.

“I’m a bit of a nerd in case I didn’t mention it,” she said.

Then with a smile stretching across her face, Marr said, “My parents would sit me down to explain that I didn’t have to exceed so far ahead of the others, because if I’m burying my competition it makes people feel bad. I would get so focused on the goal and I wouldn’t just want to win, I would want to really win.”

That drive to succeed followed Marr into her adult life. While double-majoring in theater and psychology at NYU and working four jobs to put herself through college, she discovered her passion for physiological psychology.

Today, as she juggles work, studying, and practice, Marr says her workload is nothing compared to what it was in the past, but she’ll be relieved when she can focus on building her strength as she prepares for a triathlon and then five swimming events and a second triathlon at the Gay Games. And relieved, as well, when she can start having Sunday brunch with friends again.

Still new to the pool, Marr is excited to compete for the first time, but also excited to be around LGBT athletes and gain the full experience of the Games, she said.

“I’m excited to get to meet people from all over the world and meet other athletes who have similar passions,” Marr said. She took a sip of her cooled-off tea before adding, “It’s not very often that gets to happen.”

Kathleen Romano practices for her first Gay Games since 2006 in Chicago. | RYAN HOWE

Kathleen Romano practices for her first Gay Games since 2006 in Chicago. | RYAN HOWE

One New York athlete who is no rookie to the Games is swimmer Kathleen Romano.

“I wanted to compete at the New York Games in ‘94, but I didn’t have a team,” Romano said. “When I found out the next ones were going to be in Amsterdam, I decided I was going to find some kind of team, so I started swimming even though I hadn’t been swimming since I was a kid.”

A year after the Games in New York, Romano, who is 68, started hitting the water. On a mission to join a team, she chose to pursue swimming because she “could do it.” Since then she has been swimming nearly every day for two hours a morning.

“I loved it,” she said. “I still love it.”

It took Romano two years after the 1994 Games to join TNYA and another year to officially attend a practice with the team. She practiced with them for a year, improving her technique at stroke clinics and getting in a rhythm with her teammates. The team helped her turn her time in the pool into a workout instead of just swimming.

In 1998, Romano attended the Amsterdam Games. Romano remembers standing outside the Amsterdam Arena in the August heat and getting a pint of ice cream to help herself cool off. The ice cream took her mind off of the heat and calmed her nerves. But as soon as she walked onto the field, an overload of emotions took hold of her.

“You look around and see all these people in complete support of us and cheering for us and it’s a bit overwhelming, in the best way,” Romano said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt.”

Romano next attended the 2002 Games in Sydney, where she walked away with 12 medals. After Chicago in 2006, though, she had a new feeling toward the Games.

The overwhelming feeling she felt in Amsterdam came back as she walked into Chicago’s Soldier Field to a sea of rainbow lights illuminating the stadium. But the feeling of acceptance and pride faded throughout the week. It started at the opening ceremonies when the people around her made the night uncomfortable as they booed the performers. It continued when the swimmers were put in a warm water pool that wasn’t Olympic size.

“It cured me of needing to go to the Gay Games,” Romano said, the smile she showed off earlier having disappeared.

Romano gave Chicago the benefit of the doubt since the Games had switched venues from Montreal at the last minute. Regardless, it clued her into the politics behind the Games and dimmed her Olympic torch.

She didn’t attend the 2010 Games in Cologne, but she will travel to Cleveland in August. Usually, Romano attends Games that are in cities she wants to visit, and it’s no different this year. The last time she was in Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River was on fire.

“It’ll be nice to go back and swim in a place where I watched flames sit on top of the water so many years ago,” Romano said, flashing her smile again. “I’m also excited to go and swim with people I’ve met over the years and to watch the ballroom dancing. Everyone needs to watch these people dance, it’s beautiful.”

Sara Schwartz is pushing herself to be ready for Cleveland, and hope enough rock climbers show up to allow the sport to makes its Gay Games debut. | RYAN HOWE

Sara Schwartz is pushing herself to be ready for Cleveland, and hope enough rock climbers show up to allow the sport to makes its Gay Games debut. | RYAN HOWE

Another rookie to the Gay Games, ready to compete and soak in the experience, Sara Schwartz is pushing herself.

Harnessed in and strapped to her climbing partner, Fo, Schwartz, 29, started climbing up the rock wall in front of her. In less than a minute she was halfway to the top.

“She’s a speedy climber,” Fo said as she pulled the rope through her harness. Once Schwartz reached the top she sat back for a minute then gave Fo a thumbs up to let her know she was climbing down

“Most people just walk back down, but she has to climb down,” Fo explained.

Once she touched back down on the ground, Schwartz expanded on Fo’s thoughts about her climbing down.

“It gives you more time on the wall, and it’s a completely different experience looking down at the path than up at it,” she said.

Schwartz’s love for rock climbing ignited when she was a kid. Occasional trips climbing with gym classes sparked her interest in the sport. In 2011, she attended CRUX, an LGBT rock climbing group in New York, and her love for the sport blossomed. Two years later, she became the executive director of the organization.

Schwartz climbs at different gyms throughout the city, sometimes with a partner, like Fo; other times she boulders, without ropes, alone. As she climbs, she remains focused, always scoping out new routes up the wall and assessing their difficulty.

Sara Schwartz climbing. | RYAN HOWE

Leading up to August, Schwartz is pushing herself to be a better competitor, even though the word competition scares her.

“For me, it’s similar to what you feel before a big test,” she said. “I just have to make sure I’m not pushing myself too hard.”

Even though Schwartz is working to be at the level she needs to be at to compete, it is still up in the air whether rock climbing will be featured at the Games. Being the first year rock climbing and bouldering are offered, 50 people need to sign up for the competition to take place.

Schwartz remains hopeful. Standing on a blue mat, figuring out her route up the wall and chalking up her hands, she said, “I’m excited to go and have fun. It’ll be great to go climb, meet some new people, chill out with other climbers and athletes who share similar values. I’m really excited.”

See also Gay City News’ March 5 story on three men headed to the Cleveland Games.