In the Wake of the News
August 1, 2012
LONDON — Since being born four minutes apart, the James brothers of DeKalb had experienced every big moment of their lives together, so no way Grant felt right in that room last April in Chula Vista, Calif., without Ross.
Not with fellow U.S. rowers voting on whether Ross or another competitor deserved the final spot on the Olympic team Grant already had made. So in a telling show of magnanimity, Grant recused himself from the meeting and left to share the anxiety with his brother, his best friend, as they awaited the decision.
"It was not easy to stand there waiting for the call," Ross recalled Tuesday.
At least his misery had company.
"It was a high stress time for everybody but obviously guys knew what my vote would be," Grant recalled Tuesday. "I figured they could have an unbiased discussion among themselves without me there and they did. Ross had proved himself and they picked him."
They picked Ross, fair and square, and three months later he finds himself next to his fraternal twin at the front of the boat Wednesday when the U.S. rowing men's eight team takes a legitimate shot at medaling at Eton Dorney. Germany represents the favorite, Britain hopes an enthusiastic home crowd helps it combat a head wind, and the Americans relish the role of the underdog.
"We've just done a million races so we're going to do the same thing again," Grant said before his final practice.
Echoed Ross, the outspoken one: "We've taken a thousand strokes and just need to execute a few more."
It might make their rowing story more compelling for NBC to say the James brothers, 24, had dreamt of winning gold since they were Boy Scouts taking monthly camping trips with their mom Cindy Warren-James. It would also be a lie.
Truth is, the 6-foot-5-inch twins with Abercrombie looks and a torso meant for the sport accidentally started to row after answering an ad as freshman engineering majors at Wisconsin asking for athletes taller than 6-2. As much as the James boys knew about rowing, starboard could have referred to a Hollywood committee instead of the right side of the boat.
"There are no bodies of water in DeKalb, where were we going to row?" Grant kidded.
If the boys harbored Olympic dreams being raised by a single mom committed to keeping them active outdoors, they involved holding a rifle instead of an oar. The twins eschewed "the ball sports" at DeKalb High to practice their marksmanship, preferring to shoot at targets instead of rims despite their God-given height.
"We're tall but we're not as coordinated as we hoped," Grant said.
On the brink of an Olympic medal in a sport built around synchronicity, the brothers now coordinate their moves with one another that their bond provides an uncommon, unspoken strength. Sometimes it takes a word, other times a glance, but instinctively one rowing James knows when his counterpart needs something and why. In the Olympics, saving split seconds can make the difference between a loss and a legacy.
"Between us, I think we don't have to share too much because we understand," Ross said. "It's nice to hear other guys in the boat talking. We have our race plan and the coxswain (Zach Vlahos) keeps up focused."
Focus comes easier at a venue 70 minutes by bus from central London, so remote that sheep grazed Tuesday in a field bordering Dorney Lake as rowers practiced. The scant attention has limited the questions for the U.S. team about rowing's most famous set of twins, the Winklevosses, who sued Mark Zuckerberg for the rights to Facebook.
In the U.S. boat, the Jameses essentially replaced the Winklevosses, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The James have no interest in duplicating their celebrity. They seem too grounded to excel in a water sport, too bonded by a foundation of character to let any nerves shake it on the world's biggest stage.
"You wouldn't guess they were here for the Olympics," said Warren-James, a teacher at Jefferson Elementary in DeKalb. "They are so calm and relaxed."
Mom made the trip abroad with her brother, Bruce Warren, and his wife, Sue, who live in Sycamore. She has seen her sons win national rifle championships together, an NCAA rowing title at Wisconsin and various world-class regattas. But this would be different. This would be Warren-James seeing boys born four minutes apart making all the effort over the last four years worth it.
"Your mom's in the stands, you can't lose, right?" Ross said.
Whatever happens, the brothers will be in the same boat. The way they always wanted. The way their team needed.
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