Wisconsin twin brothers will row at Olympics
The seeds of an Olympics berth began seven years ago with a generic postcard mailed to the home of Grant and Ross James, offering the pursuit of a new athletic adventure in college. The twin brothers had no idea just how much that postcard would change their lives.
It came from the University of Wisconsin men's rowing team, which had sent hundreds of identical recruiting cards to high schoolers across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois with a simple message: If you're taller than 6-foot-2 and want something new, try rowing.
The message resonated with the James brothers, who, at 6-5 and 190 pounds, had the perfect build for the sport. They just didn't know it until arriving on campus for orientation.
"Freshman year, we didn't know anything about it," Grant James said. "We just kept showing up every day. It became something you just knew you were going to keep doing."
Seven years later, the two are near the top of the sport. Grant and Ross James will represent the United States at the 2012 London Olympics after helping to earn the eighth and final spot at the Olympic Qualification Regatta on May 22 in Lucerne, Switzerland.
How they arrived at this point is a testament to their hard work and Wisconsin's surprisingly successful rowing program, which has now sent at least one rower to 12 consecutive Summer Olympics, dating back to Mexico City in 1968.
"If you're going to be good, you get good fast," Wisconsin men's rowing coach Chris Clark said. "We're looking for guys who were born rowers who don't know it yet. These guys are walking around. Most kids have tried football, basketball and all sorts of things. They've never tried rowing. They have no idea they can be great at it. That's what we're counting on."
The James brothers already were outdoorsy types growing up in DeKalb, Ill., and preferred rock climbing, whitewater rafting and rifle shooting to baseball and football. In 2006, they won the High Power Rifle Marksmanship championship as part of the Illinois State Rifle Association.
At Wisconsin, they enjoyed the instant camaraderie of having teammates. And they didn't mind winning, either. The Badgers were college national rowing champions in 2008.
"I'm sure there was a time during my first year when I was a freshman when I didn't know if that was what I wanted to do for years on end," Ross James said. "You start winning a few races. That was a nice aspect of it."
What makes the pair special rowers?
Clark said the James brothers, who graduated from Wisconsin in 2009, possess strong upper bodies and long arms, which aided in their success. They also rarely found themselves rattled in the heat of the moment.
"They were rifle shooting champions in high school," Clark said. "You have to be incredibly calm under pressure. The way your heart rate rises. Don't sweat or you'll miss a shot. These kids are the coolest dudes I've ever had under pressure. There's no question."
That calmness was especially necessary when the pair sweated out an Olympic qualifying victory in Switzerland last month. The United States men's eight edged New Zealand and France for the eighth and final Olympic spot, a result that saved the Americans considerable embarrassment.
Never before in the modern era of the Olympics had the U.S. failed to qualify at the previous world championships. But in 2011, that's exactly what happened. The United States was not among the top seven countries to qualify for the Olympics, forcing the Americans into the Final Olympic Qualification race in Switzerland. Only a first-place finish would lead to the Olympics as the eighth country in the race.
The James brothers were a part of that 2011 debacle. They also were the only members of the men's eight team invited back for the 2012 Olympic qualifying team.
United States national rowing team coach Mike Teti, a three-time Olympic rower, said he had no problem giving them another chance because they earned it with their work in the water during practice.
"We went through a pretty rigorous selection process," Teti said. "They performed really well in the racing. To me, it didn't matter what happened in the past. I don't really care why they didn't qualify. All I know is we had to get them qualified.
"The guys that were winning the races would kind of move up. The guys that were losing would move down. They were winning. They kept advancing. Then when it came down to the final eight, they both made it."
Grant James, the elder brother by four minutes, said he and Ross often push each other in the water because each is battling to show who is the more talented twin. Physically, they share many of the same qualities.
"You always want to be the one to be just a little bit better," Grant said. "It would always switch back and forth. It gets us motivated."
Extra motivation won't be necessary over the next few months given what is at stake in London. The brothers currently are training with the U.S. Olympic team at the training center in Chula Vista, Calif., and will attempt to maintain the country's recent glory at the Olympics. In 2004 under Teti, the U.S. men's eight won its first Olympic gold medal in 40 years. The team captured a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In order to duplicate that success, the team is working through a taxing daily routine that consists of a three-hour practice at 7 a.m. and another three-hour practice at 4 p.m. In between, the James brothers say they try to rest and eat enough calories to safely make it through the day.
Ross James said rowing has become a full-time job for them because it's the only way to compete on an Olympic-caliber level. Grant James even moved to California last year to be closer to the Olympic training facility.
American national team rowing is considerably different from other Olympic events because so many of the athletes have never participated in the sport before college. Teti said five of his eight rowers in the past two Olympics of the heavyweight division had never rowed before coming to college.
Wisconsin just happens to rank among the best at turning some of those athletes into rowing stars.
"They end up pulling in a lot of raw material," Ross James said. "Guys that are athletic and have the build and mental capacity it takes to do well at something like that. Coach Clark has established an exceptional system that allows athletes like that to go from never having touched a boat or an oar to the Olympics in six, seven years."
The James brothers certainly can attest to that.
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