DeKalb natives Grant and Ross James each have the 6-foot-6 body of a basketball player, the lungs and legs of an elite cross country runner, and the poise of a marksman, and the pair is set to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London starting this month.
But you won’t remember reading about the twins’ athletic feats in high school, and most readers probably never knew about their athletic gifts when the pair walked the halls of what is now Huntley Middle School.
The duo never played football or basketball, although coaches pined for their services over the years, and only have a few years of baseball to their credit at DeKalb. They always have enjoyed outdoor sports, but team sports weren’t their thing in high school.
“They always tried to get us to play basketball back in the day,” Ross said. “But that wasn’t something we were naturally interested in.”
The brothers are precisely the type of athletes Wisconsin rowing coach Chris Clark wants to scoop up when he canvasses Wisconsin, Minnesota and parts of Illinois with postcards that read: “Are you over 6-foot-5? Do you want to try rowing?”
Clark’s idea when he started sending out these postcards several years ago was this: rowing is a sport that can be learned with some hard work, but a person has to have some very specific and rare natural abilities to succeed.
He wants to grab the tall, lean athletes who fall through the cracks or don’t fit into another sport for some reason or another.
“There were probably about 20,000 people we contacted, recruited, sent letters to, that either weren’t interested or didn’t fit the profile,” Clark said. “It’s an enormous sifting, and there is a tremendous amount of numbers involved.”
The James brothers saw that postcard and decided to give the sport a try.
Little did the two know, they had the perfect physical gifts to be fantastic at the sport and the drive to meet their potential.
The pair were part of the eight-man boat that won the 2008 national championship for Wisconsin, and the 24-year-olds will start their Olympic quest July 28 in the preliminary round of the eight-man competition.
In an era when athletes are cultivated from a young age, when parents spend time and resources on their kids, it’s refreshing when a pair of world-class athletes find their talent after most athletic careers have fizzled out.
It’s clear Grant and Ross James are blessed with other-worldly gifts. But their experience shows that there could be some skill or some athletic or academic pursuit that you’re born to do but haven’t tried.
And it might not be too late to start.
“There are rowers out there walking around that are as good as them that will never know how good they could have been,” Clark said.
• Anthony Zilis is a contributor to the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.