Claire Hafner '99 in competition as a professional boxer.

Strongwomen: The Fight for Feminist Fitness

Three alumnae who are defying stereotypes and finding success in the professional fitness space.

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By Arya Samuelson, MFA ’19
Lisa Pollari Kromer ’98 (Cherry Tree Imagery)

What do this Strongman champion, an opera singer turned world-class boxer, and the founder of the nation’s first queer gym all have in common? They’re all badass Mills alumnae who are, in incremental and momentous ways, charting new ground in the landscape of professional fitness. They don’t fit a stereotype, and are instead bringing their full selves to their practices and redefining success in their own terms.

When Lisa Pollari Kromer ’98 (pictured above, in competition on January 23) transferred to Mills from College of Alameda, she was seeking a safe refuge from an unhealthy relationship. Her sociology classes illuminated structural systems of gender and power, helping her reconnect with her innate worth. Meanwhile, Kromer discovered exercise as a powerful outlet. She fell in love with the abundance of dance classes, worked as a head lifeguard, and learned basic lifting. “At Mills, I learned how to take care of myself and how to value myself,” she says. “The sports complex was my lifeline.”

After graduating, Kromer moved home to Washington state and began working with a trainer at her local gym. The trainer introduced her to the riveting world of power lifting and Strongman, a competition that tests its participants’ strength in non-traditional ways, such as carrying refrigerators, pulling vehicles, and hauling stones. Her trainer became her husband, and over the last 20 years, the couple has competed in numerous Strongman national and world championships.

Kromer considers herself lucky to have discovered a powerful community at Strongman: “There isn’t the negativity you might encounter in other parts of powerlifting. The vibe is like, ‘You’re weird like me, let’s go do this.’” In the last decade, Kromer has been thrilled to see increased representation and participation of women in professional lifting, particularly due to the popularity of CrossFit. However, Kromer laments the limited coverage of female heavylifters who don’t fit conventional notions of beauty, and she wishes that amazing feats such as the World’s Strongest Woman competition received the coverage they deserved.

In 2016, Kromer won the US Strongman Middleweight 148 class title, the highest honor in the country for her weight class. In 2019, she competed in Russia for an arm-lifting competition and became one of only two women in the United States to qualify as both a pro Strongwoman and pro armlifter. Kromer, whose day job is in supply-chain management, now lives in Kennewick, Washington, with her husband and two sons—and both of them love sports and training with their parents.

Claire Hafner ’99

“The hardest part about boxing isn’t boxing; it’s everything outside the ring,” says Claire Hafner ‘99, Universal National Boxing Council (UNBC) Women’s Heavyweight Champion, referring to the economic inequities, misogyny, and debasing behavior experienced by women boxers. As a mentor once told her: “Once you turn pro as a woman, it’s a steep climb. There’s not a lot of competition, and they’re good.” By contrast, male boxers are able to match in more fights, allowing significantly more opportunities to practice and pad their resumes. “Women aren’t supposed to be 40-year-old boxing heavyweights,” says Hafner, now 43. “After winning my pro debut, I realized that maybe I could make a difference by showing people what women can do.”

However, long before Hafner entered the boxing ring, she fell in love with music. “Mills College shot me like a cannon into my dream of being an opera singer,” she says. “It blew my mind. I had a to-do list of traveling the world and studying opera in Italy, and I got to do it all. Nobody put a cap on me.” Hafner was especially inspired by the camaraderie among her peers at Mills, who taught her it was OK to be herself, even if she still harbored insecurities.

After graduating, she traveled across Europe as an opera singer and introduced Black American opera to new audiences. She moved to Montréal and staked out a place in the Canadian opera scene, pursuing a master’s degree in music at the University of Ottawa. Hafner founded an opera company and discovered a passion for directing operas with a contemporary twist—for instance, infusing a production of Julius Caesar with a Game of Thrones thrill ride. In a later opera, she fused her passions by reimagining the protagonist as a boxer. “The less of a budget I have, the more creative I am,” she says.

Hafner was first recruited by a boxing coach at age 36. “I didn’t start boxing to be a champion in the spotlight,” she insists. “I just wanted the most intense workout possible.” Her extraordinary discipline and drive led her to win a variety of amateur fights and ultimately to win the Ringside World Championship in 2015 and take silver at the Canadian Nationals in 2016. At age 40, she made the leap into pro boxing, and after her fifth match, she won the UNBC, an intercontinental fight that put her in line to compete for the world title.

However, the road to the top has been rife with degrading treatment and ethical quandaries. Having witnessed coaches slut-shame athletes, spread false rumors, and generally treat women as the weaker sex, Hafner has been continually forced to make tough calls about when to leave and when to fight back. She also understands intimately how the anti-feminist, money-driven nature of the sport pits participants against each other. After winning the Canadian Nationals, her coach—a woman herself—dropped Hafner in favor of a younger boxer being groomed for stardom. “If I weren’t a woman in my late 30s with a feminist background from Mills, I never would have survived,” Hafner admits.

Once COVID-19 boxing restrictions are lifted, Hafner is thrilled about the opportunity to compete for a Canadian boxing title, one of her lifelong dreams. In the meantime, she is pursuing new passions. “Boxing isn’t who I am,” she says. “I think it’s very dangerous to be only one thing.” Hafner is currently enrolled in law school and, upon graduation, is considering working as an advocate for surrogate mothers. “Court is where the fight really happens,” she says.

If I weren’t a woman in my late 30s with a feminist background from Mills, I never would have survived.

-Claire Hafner
Nathalie Huerta, MBA ’12, founder of the Queer Gym.

By the time Nathalie Huerta, MBA ’12, enrolled at Mills, she was personally familiar with the challenges queer people faced at the gym. Working as a fitness trainer, Huerta felt frustrated by the constant harassment she experienced as a masculine-of-center lesbian. “The gayer I looked, the weirder going to the gym became,” she says. “I would train my clients at the gym and go home to work out.” As a business student, Huerta hatched her dream of founding a queer gym. She connected with a crew of entrepreneurs who supported each other as they grew the roots of their businesses: “Mills held the umbrella and helped all of us move faster in a more intentional way through the business world.” By her second semester, Huerta was working as a personal trainer with lesbians across the Bay Area (including a fellow Mills student, who is still her client 10 years later). By the end of her first year, Huerta had enough money to rent a brick-and-mortar in Oakland. “I moved out all of the couches, started doing burpees, and declared it a gym!” she says.

The first five years were dedicated to learning the how-tos. Huerta asked herself the hard questions: “Is it going to be The Lesbian Gym, or will it be The Queer Gym? If it’s going to be The Queer Gym, there’s so much I need to learn.”After deciding on the latter, Huerta reached out to trans clients for honest feedback and sought professional guidance at Lyon-Martin Health Services in San Francisco on how to make the gym experience for trans and gender non-conforming people as affirming as possible. “This is truly a safety issue for them,” she says. “To make sure this gym was a safe place for them, I needed to find out what they needed.” Huerta now requires all of her fitness coaches to participate in trainings on LGBTQ+ issues multiple times a year and has sought to eliminate as much gendered language as possible. “I’ve never seen genitalia on exercise equipment,” Huerta jokes, regarding popular fitness terms like “women’s” or “men’s” barbell.

At The Queer Gym, Huerta has also cultivated a space where it’s safe to make mistakes. Though she trains her coaches how to avoid misgendering or unintentionally harming clients, she also trains them what to do if it does happen. “There’s a lot of relationship-building.” Huerta says, “[This environment] is not a machine. It’s a garden. You have to water it, cut the weeds, make sure it has enough sun. You’re always growing it.” In recognition of economic disparities in the community, Huerta also offers additional services at the gym, including coaching on time management, money, and nutrition for coaches and clients: “My goal is to create happy, healthy, wealthy homos.” Knowing many of her trainers hope to start their own coaching businesses, Huerta celebrates their entrepreneurship by teaching them firsthand how to launch and sustainably operate their own companies.

In 2016, Huerta began to experience challenges related to the intense scrutiny garnered by her queer approach to fitness: “I had started the first queer gym, but everyone kept criticizing it. I kept saying, ‘Come join me. Let’s do this together.’” These critiques led her on a long journey of self-discovery in order to re-envision how she approached leadership. “I realized I was leading with toxic masculinity,” she admits. Huerta finally comprehended that her vulnerability could be channeled into strength, and she learned to lead and coach with love. Now Huerta shares this perspective with her coaches, creating a safe space where they can be vulnerable about their struggles. “You can’t have an employee kill it at work if their life is a mess,” she says.

Operating fully and permanently online, The Queer Gym is celebrating its 10th year and flourishing with more than 300 clients around the US. Huerta regularly trains gym instructors across the country on integrating queer-affirming practices into their fitness spaces. She is proud that her gym is no longer the only queer gym in the country.

Though feminist reformation of the fitness world has a long way to go, Hafner, Kromer, and Huerta are triumphing in fields dominated by men and misogyny and reconsidering the true meaning of success. “I like how sports allow me to push my limits—and if my personal goals intersect with winning, that’s great,” says Kromer, who is currently training for several world competitions. “The most important thing is that I’m always getting better.”

Huerta, who comes from a large Latinx family in Southern California, has learned to align notions of success with her core values around relationships: “I feel proudest and richest when I have enough money to send home to my family. That’s what drives me to be an entrepreneur.”

While Hafner waits out pandemic boxing restrictions, she is training for a competitive biathlon in skiing and rifle shooting. “I’m awful at skiing,” she admits, “and it’s so much fun. When you’re the best, you can’t do anything wrong. Everyone should do something where they have permission to be terrible.”

All three women credit Mills for its role in their rejection of patriarchal norms. Using lessons and relationships from Mills, they are creating new paradigms for fitness that center women and queer folks and embrace new ways of supporting one another. As Hafner says of her time at the College: “It wasn’t us against men. It was just about us.”