Mothers Are Wind Beneath Their Wings

By RICHARD SANDOMIR

When Mary Mazzio acted in a school play, became a cheerleader or rowed doubles in the 1992 Summer Olympics, she said her mother was always referred to as "Mary Mazzio's mother."

Paula Mazzio's anonymity to the public struck Mazzio as unfair, but it helped inspire her new film, "Apple Pie: Raising Champions," a warm and illuminating tribute to athletes' mothers on ESPN Classic at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. Her first film, "A Hero for Daisy," chronicled a protest in 1976 at Yale over the shabby facilities for female rowers.

"My mother taught me not to quit," Mazzio said by telephone from Wellesley Hills, Mass. "I was the kind of athlete who was cut from every national team possible. Coaches told me I was too weak or too short and she told me, 'Hang in, Mary.' She helped me be tenacious." Mazzio added, "The real heroes are often sitting on the sofa next to you."

Fathers usually get credit for their children's athletic success, "but that's not always the case, and that stunned me," said Mazzio, whose mother raised her alone. Her exploration of maternal influences on athletes as diverse as Mia Hamm, Rulon Gardner, Kenny Lofton and Shaquille O'Neal reveals deep lodes of love and steely strength.


Her 11 stories are told with deftness and emotion that is never cloying. She chose her participants wisely — all are articulate in different ways — and used the narrative device of having each mother introduce herself by telling capsule versions of her life. Another strategy is to have the athletes try to teach their mothers an athletic skill. Watching Gardner, the 2000 Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist, show how he would take his mother down, or Natalie Granato, the mother of the hockey players Cammi and Tony, in a goaltender's uniform is priceless.

"I thought the most difficult thing was to get the athletes to participate," said Mazzio, who discovered it was easy when she told them that she wanted to know the impact their mothers had on their lives.

Virginia Gardner regards her 286-pound son as "my baby" — he is the youngest of nine — and she helped him overcome a learning disability by reading with him until 2 in the morning some days on their remote Wyoming farm.

As with Virginia Gardner, Paula Mazzio's influence did not come by teaching Mary to row, but by developing her character. But, Mazzio said, "What I didn't know until he died was that my grandfather was captain of his rowing team at M.I.T., so it must have been in the genes."

Lofton, who was born when his mother was 15, was raised by his grandmother, Rosie Lou Person, who is blind.

"When she came to watch me play," said Lofton, the Chicago White Sox center fielder, "she was so loud. She had a whistle!" (Styles of maternal spectating is a theme here.) "The proudest day of my life," he said, "was when I bought my grandma a house."

The race car driver Sarah Fisher's mother, Reba, was a Go-Kart racer (her mother was an airplane pilot) who says in the film, "I love Sarah for putting the pedal to the metal" — not your basic Hallmark sentiment.

Drew Bledsoe and his mother, Barbara, clearly have a close relationship. He did not inherit his quarterbacking skill from his mother, but she contributed an inestimable physical attribute. "I got my arm from my mom," said Bledsoe, who was traded last month to the Buffalo. Bills.

Among Natalie Granato's six children are four hockey players. One night, Cammi told her mother, "When I grow up, I want to be a Blackhawk." The reply? "Cammi, a girl can't be a Blackhawk." Cammi, who would win a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, cried at her dream's rejection, a reflection of the limited opportunities in the sport for women at the time.

"I was devastated," Natalie Granato said, "that I could say such words to her." Still, she supported Cammi's dream, yelled at misguided referees and showed her daughter that "she can be a lady, no matter she's doing."


The one segment that comes closest to a tear-jerker — the one without a mother or grandmother to tell her story — is that of the blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer. He lost his sight at 13; his mother, Ellen, died three years later.

"I had just learned to live with the blindness and then my mom died," he said. "It was a thousand times worse than going blind." With his father and brothers, he found an outlet on mountains he could not see. Last year, he became the first blind climber to reach the peak of Mount Everest. And it is in the tactile sensations of climbing that he thinks of his mother.

"Where I look for her," he said, "is when I touch granite warmed by the sun, or she's the crunch of snow beneath my feet."

 

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