- Badgers in the Olympics
Perseverance is one of the common threads running through the nearly identical bios of Ross and Grant James, the 24-year-old twins from DeKalb, Ill., who are representing the Wisconsin men's rowing program in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Each has their own definition and application for the persistency that it takes to adhere to a course of action; in this case the course is 2,000 meters.
"Like most sports at this level to get to this point, you really have had to go through your share of training and competitions,'' Grant said. "The guys who persevere over others are the ones who have the commitment and just keep going at it; no matter what happens. All the hard work -- all the ups and downs -- help get a boat together, especially when you have eight guys together.''
Although they row from different sides in an eight-man boat -- Grant from the starboard side and Ross on the port side -- they're generally on the same page in terms of what it takes to be successful, on the water and off. In 2008, they got their first taste of success on a big stage when Wisconsin's varsity eight boat outdueled No. 1 Washington for the national championship.
"Perseverance,'' said Ross, who's about four minutes younger than Grant, "is important with rowing because you have to show up every day and put in the miles. It's a lot of tough work and you often have to put aside gratification for a long time -- for maybe just one race at the end of the year. You could say that you have to persevere to get to the finish line.''
Their steadfast commitment to rowing, not to mention each other, is why they're competing for the U.S. Olympic team today in London; a journey which is the culmination of seven years of training and preparation, dating to their freshman year at the UW when they were introduced to the sport. They both were recruited by Badgers coach Chris Clark out of an orientation line; a time-honored tradition.
"It was the kind of thing where we were interested in trying something new,'' Ross said. "So you show up at the boathouse the first day with the other 130 freshmen who got talked into showing up. We just felt it was something worth trying and we're the kind of people who stick with stuff, so we kept doing it, we kept showing up. It was never easy but we won a few races and it was pretty cool.''
Cool but complicated because time management is of the essence.
"On top of the class work, studying and homework, you're going to two practices a day,'' said Ross. "It's not just the time you put in the boat house. It's the time it takes to get there, and the time it takes to cook the gross amount of food that you have to eat to stay alive. And there's the extra sleep that you try not to lose when studying or rowing because you're wearing yourself out more each day.''
The sacrifices add up. "You give up late nights or going out -- what normal college kids do,'' said Grant. "They can go out and have fun, but you have to go to bed early because you have practice in the morning. All your free time is spent studying and when you graduate, when your other classmates are going off and getting jobs, you keep training, you keep rowing full-time.''
To survive is to persevere. "Guys who make it this far are the ones who really want to be here; they've really got their hearts set on it,'' Grant said. "It's not easy coming out of college with no money and more training. But when you get the chance to go to the world championships, then the Olympics, when you finally make that boat, you say, 'That was worth it.'''
In this vein, Clark has played a valuable role in grooming the Brothers James. "He knows what needs to be done to really pick out those guys who never have rowed a stroke in their life,'' said Grant. "In a couple of years, he puts them in a spot where they can be elite athletes. I give him all the credit for developing us in the early years and getting us started on the road where we are now.''
Addressing what Clark may have initially seen in each of the 6-foot-5, 190-pound twins, Ross said, "He likes that we're tall -- almost gangly -- and our ability to be really long through the water. We're just a lever pulling an oar and the longer you can be, the better. We have a little bit of skill, enough to be able to move a boat pretty well and over the years we've developed the power to back that up.''
Olympics sports are routinely overshadowed on most college campuses. But laboring in the shadows of football and basketball and hockey was never an issue for the twins. "We never looked at it as having to compare ourselves with them,'' Ross said. "We like football. We like going to the games. Of course that has funded all of our adventures, so we couldn't complain too much.''
Rationalizing further, he said, "We always tried to work hard, speak softly and carry a big stick. (Or oar, it was suggested to James, who ignored the play on words). We'd wear our letter jackets and bike around campus. People would perk up to see if we were a football player or not. We didn't mind too much.''
The fact that they have kept the streak alive -- UW rowers have now taken part in 12 consecutive Olympic Games -- is a source of tremendous pride for Ross and Grant James. "That's pretty special,'' Ross said, "especially because it's a program that takes guys like us - who didn't know anything about rowing -- and turns them into elite athletes. That's kind of a neat aspect to Wisconsin rowing.''
Competition fuels the twins. When they were still in their teens, on their way to becoming Eagle Scouts, they got invited to an indoor shooting range and, after firing a few rounds, the instructor asked them back with the promise to teach them how to shoot. Fast learners, they went on to become a part of the Illinois state team and they each won a national championship in high-power rifle marksmanship.
"It's more of a mental, coordination sport; there's not any physical aspect to it,'' Grant said of their endeavors on the range. "But the focus needed to repeat over and over again with your shooting carries over in some ways to the same kind of focus to detail in rowing.''
Right now, Grant is pushing Ross to be the best rower in the Olympic boat.
Right now, Ross is pushing Grant to be the best rower in the Olympic boat.
You get the idea, right now, don't you?
"We're exceptionally competitive,'' Ross said. "We're twins; we have a lot of similar experiences, so basically everything is a competition. Rowing lends us to be competitive. When you're always running with somebody who's very similar physically, whoever wins on that day is usually just the guy who wanted it more. That's something that has always pushed us, which is good.''
While Grant acknowledged the obvious -- "Our whole lives, it has always been like, 'Who's the better twin?'' he said -- the focus is on something else in London. "This is everything we've been training for,'' he said. "Our goal is to get a medal, and I don't think we'll be satisfied if we don't.''