May 4, 2009
By Larry Watts
If the International Olympic Committee ever comes up with a sport combining rowing and marksmanship, the James twins will be gold medal contenders.
"Right now, all they have is the biathlon," says Grant James, who with his twin brother Ross, is wrapping up his senior season on Wisconsin's talented Varsity Eight rowing team. "We never knew how to row until we came to Wisconsin, so I guess we could learn how to cross country ski."
Coming out of DeKalb, Ill., the only high school sport the James twins played was baseball, and that only lasted one year. The summer after their sophomore year, they volunteered to work with kids at a local sportsman's club.
"They had a shooting range in the basement and after we helped out, they would let us go down there and shoot," Grant says. "We into the basement and they showed us the ropes shooting .22 rifles and then they introduced us to the Illinois State Rifle Association. From there we just took it away and won a few championships."
Their keen eyes helped bring them the High Power Rifle Marksmanship Championship in 2006.
Although they enjoy the outdoors, the James brothers had never tried rowing before, nor had they even thought about it. But that all changed when they attended their orientation meeting at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 2005.
"Chris Clark and the rest of his coaching staff was there grabbing all the guys who were 6-foot-2 and taller," says Grant, who, like his brother, is 6-5. "They were coming after any football or basketball players who were no longer playing their sport. The next thing you know, we are getting these postcards in the mail about joining the rowing team."
"Finally there was a sport, other than basketball, where you could be tall and it would be an advantage," says Ross. "It was kind of funny, but we thought we'd check it out."
The James twins were two of approximately 140 freshmen who showed up at the first practice. The first two weeks of intense workouts was basically self-elimination.
"They sat us down in ergs (indoor rowing machines) and taught us how to use them," Grant says. "Then they put you on barges, which are actually two boats lashed together with wooden connectors so you don't tip over.
"Before you knew it, we were down to 34 guys. The coaches only had to make a couple of cuts. Most of the guys didn't come back because of the early morning practices or it was just too hard for them. Coach Clark never thought we'd make it, but here we are three years later doing pretty well."
Doing pretty well would be defending national champions after defeating unbeaten Washington in last year's championship race. The Badgers are undefeated and currently ranked No. 2 to Cal-Berkley, but both teams split the first place votes in the most recent poll.
"I think there is some bias in the poll," says Grant. "Those guys from the East and West coasts don't think the guys in the Midwest know what rowing is. After we won the regional last year, there were people denying we were that good. Those guys like to think they know everything there is about rowing."
According to Ross, Wisconsin's success is attributed to Clark's system and his ability to find people he can develop into solid rowers.
"Those other teams can recruit from other countries," he says. "Wisconsin is usually 100 percent Americans because we don't have that kind of funding and only a handful have past rowing experience. Only three guys on our national championship boat last year had previous rowing experience in high school."
If there were still any doubters in the rowing community after the national title, they should have been convinced later that July. That's when coxswain Dan Connolly, the James brothers and Derek Rasmussen made up the first four members of the stern as the United State won the gold medal at the Under-23 World Championships in Brandenburg, Germany.
"It didn't get much attention because of the Olympics," says Grant. "There were 16 rowers in camp and we got to train with the U.S. Olympic team. It was neat having the first four people in the boat from Wisconsin."
"How often do you get a chance to train with the best in your sport?" Ross added. "We held our own with them for a little bit while training, but it was obvious they were a fast crew. It's not a very complicated sport, either you have it or you don't."
Last year, Grant sat in the stroke position (in front of the coxswain) and Ross was right behind them. But this year the twins have moved back one seat.
"Last year I set the rhythm and now I'm following the stroke," Grant explains. "The middle four guys are like your powerhouse or engine room while the bow guys are mainly there to keep things steady."
Wisconsin's title defense begins with the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Championship May 10 in Worcester, Mass. The Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships will be conducted June 4-6 in Gold River, Calif.
But the national championships does not mean an end to rowing for the James twins. After graduation (Grant finishes in the fall semester with a degree in mechanical engineering while Ross graduates next year in biological systems engineering), they have their eyes locked on berths on the U.S. Olympic team in 2012.
"Rowing has opened a lot of doors and created several opportunities for us," says Ross. "We had never been outside the U.S. or Canada before and now we've had a chance to interact with so many different cultures while competing at such a high level. This has been a very exciting experience."
And if the rowing doesn't work out, it's never too late to start training for the biathlon.