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Connetquot High grads converge on Olympics as NBC employees

Connetquot High School grads and and NBC Olympics

Connetquot High School grads and and NBC Olympics staff members Jules Schoenfeld, Vinny Rao and Shannon Ward pose in front of the NBC Sports Group building in Stamford, CT. Credit: Dan Masonson

NBC will have about 2,200 employees in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games, so prime time host Bob Costas and his on-air colleagues are just the tip of the staffing iceberg. The rest are the ones who make everything go.

Among them are Jules Schoenfield, a production manager for gymnastics, who said, “Back home, they have no clue what goes into putting on an Olympics. We essentially create this bustling city. We need each and every [staff member].”

Speaking of “back home” . . .

For Schoenfeld and two fellow cogs in the NBC wheel, the job comes with a small, coincidental reminder of where they were raised, a direct connection amid the vastness of the network’s enterprise.

Schoenfeld, 37, graduated from Connetquot High School in 1997, having grown up near one of her fellow production managers in gymnastics, Vinny Rao, 38, who graduated from Connetquot in 1995.

Rao used to substitute teach in the district, and at some time he likely had an elementary school student named Shannon Ward, who now is 24 and a production logistics assistant in Rio. She graduated from Connetquot in 2010.

Voila! An instant mini-hometown. Bohemia comes to Ipanema!

Rao and Schoenfeld did not know one another until they were at NBC. “We had one of those random, small-town Long Island conversations,” Schoenfeld said.

Ward learned of the connection when she was interviewing with Schoenfeld and mentioned where she grew up, which turned out to be down the street from Schoenfeld.

These days the temporary home for all of them is Brazil, where the coolness of the experience and the scope of the undertaking never gets old.

“Coming from [non-Olympic] sports to my first Olympics, you cannot imagine what goes into the preparation,” Rao said. “You still can’t wrap your mind around how they put all this together. It’s a very big learning curve.”

Said Ward, “I was only in Sochi for a month, so I didn’t see the magnitude until now.” She is scheduled to be in Rio for four months before, during and after the Games.

The intensity and the many weeks away from family and non-work friends form a bond among the multitudes.

“This is my second family,” Schoenfeld said. “We live together, we play together . . . It’s an incredible feeling to know you can trust everybody, and that after it’s all over, you pull off another Games, look at yourselves and say, ‘Wow.’”

Ward is working her second Olympics after going to Sochi as an intern. She spoke from Copacabana Beach as she delivered gears and cables for the beach volleyball venue.

Schoenfeld is on her fifth, and at other times of the year primarily is assigned to Olympic duties as operations manager of the Olympic engineering department.

Rao, who is at his fourth Olympics, has a key role for another marquee NBC property, as production manager on “Sunday Night Football.”

“He has one of the great dry senses of humor ever,” Costas said. “His little Sunday production meeting standup bits are legendary. They’re not known outside that room, but they’re legendary, where he is liable to take a shot at anybody in the room — me, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth — based on something that’s happened that week or is upcoming.

“He’s very, very funny. But he also has a quality that’s much appreciated: He gets everything done without any fuss or muss. He doesn’t need a hundreds pats on the back.”

Rao started on “Monday Night Football” at ABC, then moved to NBC when “SNF” began in 2006. He described his duties as akin to a logistics “tour manager” for the Sunday night road show.

“Yes, I get away with a lot of sarcasm,” Rao said. “It’s very chaotic and so sometimes people get worked up, and it’s important to keep everything in perspective.”

Connetquot’s trio said that sort of comfort level between big-name, big-money on-air talent and behind-the-scenes staff extends to the Olympics.

“They know what we’re doing, the long hours for 17 days consecutively,” Schoenfeld said. “We’re a big family. They get to know the runners and the crew members.”

Said Ward, “[In Sochi] I was working as a runner so I was always dealing with the talent and making sure they have what they need, and they’re always super appreciative. It’s a great group to work with. They know everybody’s name and understand that everyone puts in so much effort.”

NBC Sports is based in Stamford, Connecticut, so living on Long Island is not practical for its employees, and none of the three Connetquot alums do anymore. But running into fellow Nassau or Suffolk natives on the job is common.

“Every time you meet one, you start talking about Long Island,” Rao said.

During such conversations, Schoenfeld said, “It’s quite amusing how quickly the accent comes back.”


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