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Coming Home

By Bill Alden // Photography by Frank Wojciechowski

Growing up in Ithaca, N.Y. during the 1970s and 80s, Mollie Marcoux developed a fondness for Cornell University. But when Marcoux traveled to Princeton University for a college visit during her high school years, she found a second home.

“It was just a feeling I had when I walked on campus,” recalls Marcoux. “The people that I met really cared about being great at sports and being great at academics as well. I have always been pro Princeton, it just felt right to me from the beginning.”

Turning down Harvard, among other Ivies, Marcoux came to Princeton in the fall of of 1987 and went on to establish herself as one of the greatest student-athletes in school history.

As a hockey player, Marcoux ’91 was a four-time All-Ivy League performer, a three-time team MVP, an All-ECAC Hockey selection, and a member of the ECACH Team of the Decade. In soccer, she earned second-team All-Ivy honors. Marcoux won the C. Otto von Kienbusch Award, the top senior female student-athlete award at Princeton which recognizes “high scholastic rank, sportsmanship and general excellence in athletics.”

This August, Marcoux will be returning to her second home, taking the reins as Princeton’s Ford Family Director of Athletics, succeeding Gary Walters, who is stepping down after a 20-year run in the post.

For Marcoux, who has worked the last 19 years with Chelsea Piers Management, which owns and operates two major amateur sports complexes, Chelsea Piers New York and Chelsea Piers Connecticut, the chance to run Princeton athletics was too good to pass up.

“I had to think about it a little bit because it is a big thing for the family,” says Marcoux, 45, who is married to Andrew Samaan and has three children, ages 5, 8, and 10, and will be the first woman to serve as Princeton AD.

“I was very honored and very appreciative of the opportunity. I think the committee was great, they were so encouraging. The people that I met here reinforced and confirmed things about Princeton. It is a very welcoming community and there was so much support, we decided to go for it.”

Reflecting on her experience as a student-athlete, Marcoux acknowledges that it took her a while to adapt to the rigors of Princeton’s academic community while playing two sports at a high level.

“It was hard, I think the thing with it is that you get better at it,” notes the lithe Marcoux, whose hair is still blonde and who carries herself with the grace of a natural athlete.

“It is hard when you first get here, you figure it out, just like everything else. I was just always a really, really hard worker. You get better, you figure out what you are good at and how you find the seam. It is always a juggle but I never wanted to quit one of the sports because I loved them so much. Sometimes you could say why are you playing two sports, it seems like too much. You miss a little bit of the preseason in hockey but you are really ready for the season when it gets started. It never crossed my mind to not play either of the sports.”

Marcoux’s strong-minded nature has been evident from the time she started sports, taking up hockey in the first grade even though she didn’t know how to skate and her mother encouraged her to do dance or gymnastics instead. Often battling with her older brother, Marcoux tried her hand at basketball, softball, golf and soccer in addition to hockey. By high school, she had narrowed things down to hockey and soccer. Her drive, though, was not confined to sports as she decided early on that she would only apply to Ivy League schools when it came time to head off to college.

“I always had that passion for sports but it was clear that I needed to focus on school first and foremost,” says Marcoux.

“From a pretty early age I set my sights on the Ivy League. I was always a competitive, driven person. I wanted to figure out what the best thing would be and to me the best thing was balancing the two and being able to have the academics and the athletics. It was always a firm conviction on my part that I wanted both, the best possible school and the best possible athletics that I could find.”

While Marcoux made history as one of the best  players to ever compete for the Princeton women’s hockey program, she relished her time on the soccer pitch as well.

“I did better at hockey when I was here than I did at soccer but I never really considered hockey to be my main sport,” says Marcoux.

“I just happened to be relatively better at hockey, I guess. It was fun from the very beginning, playing at a high level and being able to contribute right away. Really being a part of the team was the most important thing. I loved the game of soccer and I love playing it. I got injured a little bit my sophomore year. I didn’t miss too much but it was a bigger setback than I expected. It was the  first time coming back that I had ever sat on the bench and I had to work my way back into the starting lineup. That was good for me.”

Working hard in the classroom, Marcoux graduated cum laude, earning honors with her thesis on the history of women in sports.

“I was a history major, I liked American social history, that was my flavor; and I always loved sports,” says Marcoux.

“Everything I did related back to sports because that was my real passion, so I wanted to combine those things and work on something that is relevant to me and is really studying the history. The thesis was really tracking women’s history through that era of 1895 to 1945 but using sports as the mechanism to view the women’s role. It was fun and interesting and in my sweet spot.”

“She is a people person,” asserts Barlow. “She is engaging and makes people feel comfortable.”

On the ice, Marcoux made her teammates comfortable with her hard-charging style.

“I remember being really impressed with her as a hockey player; she could skate by everyone and score,” added Barlow. “She was a standout, she was by far the best skater. She was doing so much and she would set up her teammates.”

Marcoux was also fun around campus, recalls her college classmate and current Princeton soccer head coach Jim Barlow.

For Princeton football head coach Bob Surace, a 1990 Princeton alum, Marcoux was a role model.

“She was high achieving and driven,” adds Surace, noting that his future wife, Lisa, played on the soccer team with Marcoux and they remain close friends. “You look up to that good of an athlete; she had that extra desire.”

As Marcoux wrapped her college career, her desire was to remain in sports. “There was no doubt in my mind that in some capacity I wanted to combine my passion for sports and my passion for success in life,” says Marcoux. “I didn’t know what that would mean or where that would lead me.”

With the help of the mother of one her hockey teammates, Marcoux landed a position at the Lawrenceville School, coaching, working in the athletic director’s office, and serving as a housemaster. “I went to Lawrenceville with the idea that it would be for a year but I fell in love with the school, the culture and the whole place,” says Marcoux.

Instead, she stayed for five years, finding that coaching gave her the chance to develop her leadership abilities and the administrative posts helped her hone marketing and public speaking skills.

Deciding that she wanted to get into the business side of sports, Marcoux left Lawrenceville in 1995 and joined the fledgling Chelsea Piers organization.

“It was so exciting, I moved to the city and Chelsea Piers was just opening,” recalls Marcoux.

“All the same skills I had learned at Princeton and at Lawrenceville were transferrable. Things like working hard, being prepared, being thorough,  communicating well, and writing well were all extremely valuable. That was my biggest takeaway right away because I was nervous, I hadn’t been in the business world and it was such a start up. They would say we would like you to do this. I would say I have never done that before and they said you can do it. They gave you a lot of confidence to go out there and sink or swim and figure it out.”

Roland Betts, the founder and chairman of Chelsea Piers, took an immediate shine to Marcoux.

“She was young, enthusiastic, and smart,” says Betts. “She had numerous jobs here. We gave her more and more responsibility; we had complete confidence in her abilities. It is our management style, we believe if someone is highly intelligent and motivated, even if she is in over her head on day one of a job, over time she can succeed. Mollie always succeeded.”

For Marcoux, working with the Chelsea Piers management team, which includes Betts along with President Tom Bernstein and Executive Vice President David Tewksbury, has given her additional insight into leading an organization.

“It was interesting, having three bosses you get the value of learning from three very different styles and approaches,” says Marcoux. “I think that is what makes them so successful, they are very collaborative and listen to a lot of opinions and make it a really, thorough strong decision.”

While Marcoux had no desire to leave Chelsea Piers, having rebuffed approaches from headhunters over the years, she had to listen when Princeton called. The University reached out to Marcoux last December as the head of the athletic director search committee Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherry phoned her last winter to gauge her interest in the position.

“I was a little stunned, it crossed my mind but I wasn’t sure how that would fit into life and how it would fit into my skill,” says Marcoux, recalling that initial conversation. “Before they called I hadn’t given it much thought but when she called it was obviously very intriguing from minute one.”

Applying her customary thoughtful approach, Marcoux concluded that she would be a good fit for the job.

“It was diving deeply into what Princeton athletics means today and really all the tremendous success that Gary has had and what he has created here in addition to the longstanding tradition and how great it was when I was here,” says Marcoux, whose hiring was announced at an introductory press conference in April in Jadwin Gym.

“Those two things, they just kept building on each other. I had a fantastic experience here and where Gary took it was fantastic as well. A lot of this really resonates with me.”

As Marcoux takes the helm of Princeton athletics, she has a lot of things going for her.

“Mollie is a very good listener,” says Betts, noting that Chelsea Piers encouraged Marcoux to pursue the Princeton opportunity and that her introductory press conference was piped into the office on large-screen TVs.

She is very hard on herself and intent on being the best at whatever she is doing. She works too hard, she puts in too many hours. She is a consensus person. She is a good listener and that will serve her well in the first few years as she is learning the job.”

Surace, for his part, cites Marcoux’s varied skill set. “Over the last nine months with Gary, there has been a lot of celebration but also talk about the qualities you have to have in that job,” notes Surace. “It requires many terrific skills and Mollie has them. She can communicate, she is a leader, she is smart, she has vision, and she is very humble.”

In Barlow’s view, that humility combined with intelligence will be assets for Marcoux.

“She can interact with administration and with different constituencies,” adds Barlow. “She is very good at thinking things through. She is patient but thoughtful. She wants to have all the information she needs before making a decision.”

This spring Marcoux spent much of her time gathering information in an effort to prioritize and have a handle on some of the hot button issues she will face.

“I think what has been so fun about this is that I am still very much in the learning phase,” says Marcoux, noting that Walters has been “off-the-charts fantastic” in providing his knowledge and insight over the last few months during the transition process.

“It is really fun to learn again, not that I wasn’t learning before but it is something new. I think right from the start it is learning and listening. It is a big department and there is lots of work being done on a day-to-day basis by a lot of talented people so fully understanding their roles and how I can support them. I think that is really No. 1.”

Being the first woman to hold the post is a role that Marcoux relishes. “Like I said at the press conference, it is not always my first thought but I do think it is really cool,” says Marcoux.

“It is always good to be the first of anything and I think you can serve as a solid role model for the women that we have here, athletes and non-athletes, that women can succeed at a good level. Women naturally bring different things to the table so I think that will be fun.”

While Marcoux knows that she will face a number of different challenges in maintaining Princeton’s record of athletic success, she is determined to have fun with things.

“I just love sports so much that being around this level of athleticism and this level of commitment to high quality coaching and being around people who are so passionate about sports is the thing I am looking forward to the most,” says Marcoux.

“Going to the games and being a part of that athletic culture here is just what I love to do. My mom was saying you always get the perfect jobs, they just fit your world. Once again, for this time in my life, she said how could you be happier than being in this environment.”

As Marcoux gets into her second act at Princeton, it appears she will feel right at home.

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