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Mary Mazzio's incredible journey from Olympic rower to social justice filmmaker

Mazzio has dedicated her life to creating films that feature the underserved. This includes her most recent work "A Most Beautiful Thing."
Filmmaker Mary Mazzio
Filmmaker Mary MazzioRichard Schultz/50 Eggs

At age 35, Mary Mazzio could have rested on her laurels. She was a partner at a top law firm in Boston, and she had the rare bragging rights of being a former Olympic rower. But she wanted to do more—and she did.

Twenty years, 10 movies and several awards later, Mazzio’s pivot to filmmaking turned out to be much more than a pipe dream. But the journey wasn’t easy.

“I was terrified [to pivot]. I was a partner at a law firm. I had these beautiful golden handcuffs,” explained Mazzio, in an interview with Know Your Value. “But I realized that I had been the beneficiary of so many gifts and so many peoples’ largesse. I decided that I needed to do more.”

Mazzio has since dedicated her life to creating films that feature the underserved, from her 1999 cult film “A Hero for Daisy,” which depicted a female rowing team fighting for legitimacy at Yale University in the 1970s; to the 2017 film “Underwater Dreams,” which gave voice to sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants who were learning how to build amphibious robots. She fought on behalf of trafficked children in “I Am Jane Doe” and for New York street vendors in “The Apple Pushers.”

“A Most Beautiful Thing” is the latest film to come out of her production company, 50 Eggs. The film is executive produced by former Duke basketball star Grant Hill, former Miami Heat NBA star Dwayne Wade and hip-hop executive 9th Wonder. It is narrated by legendary rapper Common.

In some ways, Mazzio has come full circle. The documentary tells a story about rowing, the sport that catapulted Mazzio to the Olympics in 1992. At the time, she didn’t know that a handful of underserved Black kids in Chicago were forming the first rowing team of its kind back then, too.

“A friend of mine said, ‘hey, have you read this book about this team on the west side of Chicago?’” Mazzio said. “I told her ‘there was no such thing!’”

Mazzio was thrilled to be wrong. The book, re-published this year, was “A Most Beautiful Thing” by Arshay Cooper.

Cooper was from the west side of Chicago, and his life could have ended very differently. He attended a very violent high school. His friends and family moved in and out of gangs and prison while his mother battled an addiction to drugs. Back then, Cooper was told repeatedly that he wouldn’t make it past the age of 18. Then, he learned to row.

Mazzio read about his incredible story and reached out to Cooper.

Arshay Cooper and mother Linda MedleyClayton Hauck for 50 Eggs

An unlikely filmmaker is born

Mazzio was born one of four kids into a family in Boston, whose mother was, at one point on food stamps.

“My mother couldn’t rub two nickels together,” she said.

A late bloomer athletically, Mazzio became an athlete in college and acquired scholarships and work study jobs to make her way through college at the Massachusetts women’s college Mount Holyoke. She became a two-time captain for Mount Holyoke’s varsity rowing team. She considered herself very lucky.

Mary Mazzio, center, on the U.S. National team when she was just out of college.Courtesy of Mary Mazzio.

“I did not come from money, but I never would have seen the inside of a college had my skin been a different color,” said Mazzio who is White.

Mazzio would move up to compete in the U.S. women’s rowing team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

“Rowing is about the grind. There is no glory. There is no press. We’re not the motor boaters or the downhill skiers,” said Mazzio.

Mary Mazzio at the 1991 World Championships.Courtesy of Mary Mazzio.

After years of learning, competing and growing among other women, Mazzio attended Georgetown University Law School, where she encountered sexism.

“What I noticed was the silence of women. At Mount Holyoke, I remember thinking, ‘what’s this?’” Mazzio recalled. “I spoke up in class one time and a man came up to me after and said ‘boy, I didn’t know that a woman could be that funny.’ I was like, what is this the 1950s?”

Mazzio used such humor and determination to get by, eking her way up to become partner in a Boston firm.

“I would be at a table and I would say something. A male colleague, five minutes later, would say exactly what I said and he would be heard and I wouldn’t,” she said. “I would chirp up and say ‘what am I, chopped liver?’ Everyone has their own way of dealing with it.”

As her life became easier and more luxurious—lattes, a car, a parking garage under her building —Mazzio became increasingly uneasy. On a pro bono level, she was helping indigent tenant clients in court. But it wasn’t enough.

“It was so depressing to me over time that I could be helpful to a number of people, but not helpful from a policy or scalable standpoint,” Mazzio said.

She considered politics for a minute but shied away from the public nature of it all. Instead, she decided on filmmaking and attended Boston University film school.

Mary Mazzio and Coach Mike Teti on location in Chicago.Clayton Hauck for 50 Eggs

“I was always profoundly moved by film,” Mazzio said. “I always assumed I’d be writing scripts with my name on the back of the chair, writing stories about women that I didn’t see. Where are the big-thighed, irritatingly smart, funny, angry women who have their periods and struggle? I was like ‘I’m gonna make that movie.’”

But instead of a feature film, her first movie, a documentary, was called “A Hero for Daisy,” so named because she wanted her then-baby daughter Daisy to see female heroines on screen. Though it was Mazzio’s first film and it had no distributors or sponsors initially, “A Hero for Daisy” became a national success. Mazzio toured the country giving talks about Title IX and gender equity to colleges and beyond. The film aired on ESPN Classics and garnered widespread media coverage, as well as sponsorships from New Balance and Welch’s.

A mother, wife, ex-lawyer and jock in her mid-30s, Mazzio’s brand new fate as a filmmaker was sealed. She formed 50 Eggs in 2000, enlisting her dream crew for every film.

“From project to project, we say ‘they’re not just films, they’re missions. And how do we think about moving the needle on social impact?’” she said.

Mazzio has two kids and lives with her husband Jay Manson in Boston. Her daughter Daisy graduated from Yale, where she competed as a rower.

“A Most Beautiful Thing” moves to the screen

For a brief time in the 1990s, Cooper and some of his schoolmates competed in a rowing team thanks to an experimental high school program launched by former Penn rower, Ken Alpart. The group was suddenly thrust into an extremely white, moneyed sport. They competed in a few races, never placing first—but they got better all the time. The experience never left the men, who were scarred by tragedies but who mostly grew up to be entrepreneurs. Cooper’s book depicts that time and how the sport affected the men’s lives.

Mazzio tweeted to Cooper that she read and enjoyed his book. Cooper replied right away. It was his idea to make a film, Mazzio said.

The Manley Team on location in Oakland.Richard Schultz/50 Eggs

“He didn’t just tweet to me. He was tweeting to Ava DuVernay, to Will Smith, Scorcese. But he told me ‘you’re the only one who answered my call,’” Mazzio recounted.

The two shared similar DNA when it came to a love of rowing, Mazzio said, and by then she’d had experience filming documentaries from Compton to Harlem to the dark corners of sex-trafficking on the Internet. But she was still extremely aware of her privilege while talking to Cooper about making the film.

“He and I talked a long time. I said, ‘look I’m a White woman.’ But again, I answered his call,” said Mazzio. “And the goal always for me was to amplify his voice. This was not Mary’s story according to Arshay [Cooper]. This was Arshay’s story full and through.”

The Manley Team on location in Oakland.Richard Schultz/50 Eggs

Mazzio enlisted Hill to executive produce the film, who connected her to Wade and 9th Wonder. During filming, Cooper surprised Mazzio and the film crew by saying he wanted to reunite the group of rowers and compete again. The film now serves as a retrospective and a real-time comeback.

Covid-19 struck after filming, which slowed distribution in theaters, as the film was set to debut at South by Southwest and then open theatrically with AMC Theatres in 20 major cities. But after the murder of George Floyd in May, everyone involved in the production was determined to get the film into the world, Mazzio said.

“The message of Arshay has taken on a new resonance, and it has to be now,” said Mazzio.

The film is currently streaming on NBC’s new streaming platform, Peacock. Fifty percent of profits from box office, license fees, film screenings and merchandise sales will be donated to support Cooper’s work, his rowing and inclusion efforts (via A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund), trauma research and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “A Most Beautiful Thing” has been nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award.

“To walk a mile in Arshay’s shoes - people are not coming out of the experience of watching the movie defensive,” said Mazzio. “They’re wondering ‘what can I do?’”

For more about A Most Beautiful Thing, please see www.AMostBeautifulThing.com.