When legendary U.S. Olympic gymnast and gold medal favorite Simone Biles made the unexpected announcement that she would step back from the team gymnastics finals during this past summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Marisa Rauwald’s (Duke School Class of 2012) research team at NBC Sports was on the clock, working one of their typical 2AM-2PM days from headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.
“All these news sources were reporting that [Biles] was pulling out for [physical] injury,” Marisa remembers. “We had to be quick to jump on that, to fact-check and correct,” she says, to clarify that Biles’s early exit was instead borne from the athlete’s decision to prioritize her mental health. Once the true narrative began to circulate in the media, the moment became monumental: another leap forward — following tennis star Naomi Osaka’s similar decision to withdraw from 2021’s Wimbledon and French Open tournaments — for mainstream awareness of and advocacy for athlete mental health.
Course-correcting the story of Biles’s exit was just one of the assignments Marisa’s team puzzled through during her time working on the Olympics; other duties included compiling anecdotal information about athletes for primetime announcers to read on live television during the Parade of Nations. Though small kernels of a much larger puzzle, these forms of research work are crucial for doing justice to the full story of sport.
“My dream job is to tell the stories of athletes, in whatever form,” Marisa says. She alludes to two popular long-form documentary series, ESPN’s 30 for 30 and Netflix’s Untold, as examples of popular sports media platforms that make space for the big picture, delving into the full personal and political resonance of moments in sports history.
While Marisa has come a long way from preschool through eighth grade years at Duke School, her present work and longer-term career goals make perfect sense considering the ways she was able to flex her creative muscles as a Dragon. (Marisa was also a prolific athlete at Duke School, playing volleyball, basketball and soccer, the latter she also pursued in competitive club leagues.) Her first foray into documentary production was in eighth grade, when for her culminating solo project Marisa made a film about American parents who had adopted children from China. She learned professional film editing techniques and received mentorship from videographer Rick Allen. Having the ability to “hone in on visual learning” through project work at Duke School was formative for Marisa’s burgeoning interests in media.
After attending high school at Carolina Friends School, Marisa pursued a degree in journalism and mass communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. Knowing she wanted to continue developing her documentary media expertise, she found a home in Sports Xtra, an ESPN-like sportscast specifically focused on athletics stories at UNC. A standout project for her was, fittingly, an examination of how athlete mental health is affected by outsize performance expectations and corresponding social media criticism.
As an undergraduate, Marisa leveraged her growing production skills to earn internships at NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBC Entertainment in Los Angeles, and the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in New York before coming to NBC Sports, where she landed after graduating mid-pandemic.
She’s sensitive to how COVID has shifted the realities of her field. As someone “interested in going on remote shoots, being on set, and shooting with talent,” Marisa has seen production companies cut budgets and travel and eliminate roles along the way, instead shipping camera packages to talent and arranging for remote shoot instructions led by media professionals. She has a hunch, though, that opportunities will shift back to a more normal flow as the pandemic continues to abate.
Back on a regular work schedule, and having switched out of Olympics-mode, Marisa is reintegrating into the NBC Sports marketing team — coordinating between editors, directors, and producers to make sure promotional material runs smoothly — while staying focused on her longer-term career goals in sports storytelling. Right now she’s busy working on the NFL season, preparing to return from her family’s home in Chapel Hill to Stamford, and raising her two foster kitttens. In other words: doing her best to stay grounded in the present.
Asked what advice she’d give to current students, particularly given the unconventional student life necessitated by COVID, Marisa clearly speaks from the sense of equilibrium she’s had to develop from working in an always-changing field.
“Dream big, and try to enjoy the process. Everything’s a process, and everything’s going to work itself out.”
Photos courtesy of Marisa.