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The first time Grant and Ross James climbed into an eight-man boat, as freshman at Wisconsin seven years ago, the vessel that eventually will take them to the 2012 London Olympics was so wobbly they thought it would flip over.
“It was like the tippiest thing ever,” Grant said. “It’s actually one of the more stable boats… but at first when you get in, it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, how are you supposed to keep this thing level? ‘”
The pair were at one of their first 7 a.m. practice that made the engineering majors consider whether crew was something they’d want to continue throughout college.
Eventually, Wisconsin coach Chris Clark would say Grant and Ross were “born rowers,” but back then rowing certainly didn’t feel fluid.
“I don’t think it comes naturally to anybody at first,” Grant said. “It took awhile to become natural.”
Though their hamstrings were surprisingly sore and they grew tired form the early practices, the twins kept with the sport that they came upon almost completely by chance.
Grant and Ross didn’t play many organized sports growing up in DeKalb. They played baseball for a few years and people always encouraged the 6-foot-5 twins out for basketball, but they had no interest in the sport.
They loved outdoor sports and eventually won the 2006 High Power Rifle Marksmanship National Championships, but crew never was something they considered until a postcard arrived in the mail.
“Are you over 6-foot-2? Do you want to try rowing?” it read.
The Wisconsin rowing team tries to cast a wide net. While competing schools gather the rowers from around the world, Wisconsin coach Chris Clark sends out thousands of postcards to prospective students, trying to gather the proper athletes for his powerhouse team.
The message caught their eye, and when recruiters corralled the tall twins at freshman orientation that summer, they decided to give the sport a shot.
“It was something that you could be tall, and have that be an advantage, and it wasn’t basketball,” Ross said. “So that was kind of interesting for us to try.”
At first, the only thing that made them stand out from the other 150 or so freshmen who began the season on the team was the fact that they were twins, which is no small deal in rowing.
“That’s the holy grail,” Clark said. “Automatically, you’re getting two guys that row alike.”
There were growing pains throughout that first season, but the two began to rise above the pack during their sophomore year, when they made it into the top varsity eight-man boat.
“I think, originally, being a twin was an advantage because we had, immediately, that natural level of competition between my brother and myself,” Ross said. “Also, being a twin helped us row similarly. Having someone that you can row close to when you’re learning gives you an advantage when you’re trying to figure out how to make a boat move.”
Normally, to become an elite rower, Clark said it takes seven to 10 years. But by their senior year, Grant and Ross led the Wisconsin eight-man boat to the national championship and won a gold medal at the under-23 World Championships.
They helped the United States squeak out an Olympic berth by winning a qualification race in Switzerland, their last chance to qualify.
Grant said they probably will realize the full scope of the Olympics when they get there, but right now they’re just focused on their first race on July 28.
“I don’t know what to expect, except that we have to get in a boat and give it our best,” Grant said.
The twins aren’t sure how long they’ll row competitively. They both have worked part-time engineering jobs while training out in California at the Olympic training facilities, and Grant said he’d like to pursue engineering eventually.
With their talent, and their relative inexperience, Clark hopes they stick it out for another four years.
“I certainly hope they stick around for another [Olympics],” Clark said. “Because in another four years they’ll be really good. Unbelievably good.”