Key Encouragement

September 16, 2011 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Key Encouragement
Olympic medalist, now an executive, takes time out for students

By Barbara Fischkin

Gail Marquis is a successful financial manager, with an M.B.A. and licenses to sell stocks and bonds in fifteen states. She was a basketball champion, so good at the game that she is one of only four women — and the only African American woman — to be inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame.

Basketball Hall of Famer and business leader Gail Marquis offered students advice on both specialties at a recent Queens College Career Day.

In 1976 she was selected to join the first-ever women’s Olympic team.

Extraordinary accomplishments.

Except perhaps for this: When named to that Olympic team, Marquis also had 18 credits from Queens College listed as “incomplete.”

Well, what would you do? Tell the Olympic Committee you’re sorry, but you have some papers to write?
She, of course, went to the games in Montreal. The team won silver.

And Marquis, who graduated from Queens College a few years later — and now serves on its Foundation Board — did not let her Olympic duties get entirely in the way of her coursework. In Montreal, she multi-tasked by writing a report for a course in “Exercise Physiology and Biomechanics,” based on what she was learning from her coaches, trainers, teammates — and herself. Primary sources, so to speak. “With running sprints in practice, I was into oxygen debt,” she says.

But multitasking didn’t enjoy today’s technology. “I wrote it all in longhand,” Marquis says. “We didn’t have laptops back then.” She snail-mailed the paper back to Queens, to her instructor William McArdle, now a professor emeritus — and took a final examination after the games. “God bless him. He gave me a passing grade.” Which was a B, she believes.

Marquis has a no-nonsense delivery that matches her 6-foot stature and quick pace. Dressed for business, but with a flair provided by a deep blue shirt and gold vintage-design necklace, she was keynote speaker and roundtable leader last February at a Queens College career day for more than 100 eighth and ninth graders. The students attended the Queens School of Inquiry, which is affiliated with the college.

The Olympian was delighted by the eagerness of the students, including a 13-year-old boy who stood to demonstrate that they were the same height. She also drew out shy students and, in a good naturedly way, scolded the ones who yawned or mumbled their names.

“Swing out there!” she repeated, sounding like a contender. “What made me believe that as a woman I could be an Olympian? I just knew me … I knew I could play as well as they did. People who don’t go to tryouts get me angry. Tryouts. That’s the start of the confidence.”

Marquis grew up in St. Albans, Queens, the daughter of a post office employee and a homemaker and one of five children. She attended Andrew Jackson High School and also played basketball for the local Roman Catholic church, St. Catherine of Sienna. She is a Lutheran but in that instance, as in many, basketball is what mattered.

“I was five-eleven by the eighth grade, taller than my teachers,” she says. “The knee socks never came up to the knees. The shoes weren’t … as fashionable. I never felt comfortable in my own skin. But to be on a court! There, I didn’t care too much about what I looked like.”

She knew right away that Queens College was where she wanted to go. It was close to home. She loved the open spaces, “the quad” … and that the school had a women’s basketball team.

Marquis, though, was in for what her former CUNY coach now calls a rude awakening.

“Her high school thought she was the biggest star,” says Lucille Kyvallos, Queens College’s legendary women’s basketball coach, now retired. It was Kyvallos – she and Marquis remain in contact – who showed this young player she needed to be more than tall. She was at “a starting point.” Her rebounds, defense and free throw all needed work. Kyvallos suggested that Marquis spend the summer before her sophomore year teaching at a basketball camp for children in the Poconos. There Marquis found that “the act of breaking down” basketball skills for her students taught her a lot about her own game.

Kyvallos says Marquis returned as a far more competitive player. In 1974, when they faced Immaculata College of Pennsylvania, which had been two-time national champions already, the Queens College gym was packed with students, faculty and fans from both sides. A large contingent of Immaculata nuns had come with victory pails to bang. With 22 seconds left in the game, Kyvallos says, “Gail picked off another player’s opponent, rolled to the basket, collected a bounce pass and went up for a jump shot. We ended up beating an undefeated team.”

After the 1976 Olympics, Marquis played professional basketball in France. In 1979, she returned to Queens College and finished her Bachelor of Arts degree in secondary education and psychology — incompletes no more. She was now qualified to teach high school but those positions were frozen in New York City. And Marquis also realized she needed a charged atmosphere more like that of the sports world: Wall Street. She began at an entry level, doing administrative tasks, but she learned what she could by reading stock analyses before she filed them, took courses offered by her employers — and ultimately built the career she has today.

She is now an insurance and financial sales professional for the New York firm of Lee, Nolan and Koroghlian.
Marquis ended her day at Queens College visiting with the women’s basketball team. She thanked head coach Tom Flahive for allowing the team to take a break and chat with her and posed for a photograph, comfortably holding a basketball. When it came to playing though, she deferred. “The older I get the better I used to be,” she joked. “If I dribbled now you all would want my medal back.”

In the winter of 2011 the Queens team was a young one. The players listened intently to Marquis’s advice. “She told us to go with our instinct — don’t overthink it. That makes for a faster opportunity for your team,” said Chloe Johnson, 19, a sophomore forward.

“I want to see you at the top,” Marquis told the women, sounding confident they would do just that. “Bring back the glory.”