Safe to say, not many professional tennis players foresee their career taking them to China to feed bamboo shoots to panda bears. But there’s no athlete turned broadcaster quite like Mary Carillo.
Born in 1957 and raised in Douglaston, Queens, Carillo knew from a young age that she would be an athlete.
“I always knew I was a jock,” she says. “Honestly, my first-ever memory was as a 4-year-old when my father threw me a red rubber ball and I didn’t miss it. I caught it, and I just thought, I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
A childhood spent playing all kinds of sports eventually transitioned into a career playing one: tennis. In 1977, she teamed up with her longtime friend — and future broadcast partner — John McEnroe to win the French Open mixed-doubles title, and she continued to play professionally through 1980, when knee problems forced her early retirement.
However, knee problems couldn’t keep Carillo away from the sport she loved. At the time she was competing professionally, she would write for tennis magazines and provide pickup commentary for the occasional match. A producer from USA Network, hearing Carillo’s commentary during year-end championships at Madison Square Garden, invited her to commentate on the network’s coverage of women’s tennis.
Soon thereafter, Carillo added men’s tennis matches to her USA Network broadcast responsibilities and would go on to serve as a tennis analyst for a wide variety of networks: NBC, ESPN, CBS Sports, Turner Sports, Tennis Channel, HBO, PBS, and MSG Network.
While Carillo’s tennis analysis earned her accolades from the industry, her work at the Olympic Games made her a household name. Her Olympic career began during the 1992 Albertville Games, when CBS Sports assigned her to cover skiing, a sport she knew nothing about. It would be the first of many assignments where her can-do attitude and always-say-yes mantra resulted in insightful, candid, and entertaining commentary.
“I always said yes,” says Carillo, of her early days as an Olympic commentator. “Somebody would ask me, Have you ever covered skiing? Are you interested? And I would say, Absolutely! My attitude has always been yes, the answer is yes, until proven otherwise. I’ve encouraged both my children to treat life the same way. If it’s interesting, say yes. If you can’t do it, they’ll let you know.”
Carillo continued to cover skiing at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer (1994) and Nagano (1998), adding bobsled, luge, and skeleton to her repertoire in Salt Lake City (2002). For the Summer Olympics in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000), she served as a tennis analyst. With every Olympics, she took on additional hosting and reporting duties. However, it was at the 2008 Beijing Games that Carillo found her Olympic niche: as a feature correspondent. Dick Ebersol, then chairman of NBC Sports, sent her and her production team to China ahead of the Games to see what stories they could find. They returned with reports on young Chinese acrobats, a 14th century monastery, and — perhaps the highlight of the trip — pandas. “Feeding pandas bamboo shoots was one of the great assignments of my life,” she laughs.
From that point on, Carillo’s mission at every Olympic Games was to find stories that hadn’t previously been told: stories about the host country and the host city, about the people who call places like Rio de Janeiro and PyeongChang home.
“She has a great sense of adventure and a great sense of curiosity,” says Bob Costas, who worked with Carillo on many Olympic Games. “She’s up for anything. She’s up for going to Siberia to find out how people actually live year-round in one of the coldest inhabited places in the world. Or she’ll find the actual girl from Ipanema, who’s now in her 70s, on the beaches in Rio, and she’ll talk to her. She’s good at serious stuff and quirky stuff. She has a good sense of humor. She can say something funny herself, but, if you get off a good line, she’s the best audience. She throws her head back and laughs. She’s always been wonderful to work with.”
In February, Carillo wrapped her 11th Olympic assignment with NBC, her 14th overall. She continues to serve as an analyst on NBC’s tennis coverage as well as a correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel; a post she has held since 1997.
“Mary has always brought a unique skill set to the show, one that enables viewers to emotionally connect with her stories,” says Gumbel. “A superb listener, Mary’s open and generous nature has often helped her illicit honest responses from normally reticent interview subjects. Although she can boast of an enviable record of athletic and journalistic success, she’s been the definition of a team player.”
Carillo’s desire to see new places and meet new people is not just a professional calling but a personal passion, one she has passed along to her children, Rachel and Anthony. And, while tennis remains her first love, Carillo’s innate curiosity for every sport and athlete she encounters has established her as one of the most beloved voices in the business.
“If there’s one thing I have in my favor,” she says, “it’s that I love sports. I love the athletic heart, and I’m always curious about anything at all athletic or competitive. I want to know why it works, how it works, why did you choose that sport. I’ve gotten very passionate about some sports just from covering them over the years and getting to know who these athletes are and how much they give to their sport. Their commitment, their dedication is, to me, very fascinating.”