It was a too-good-to-be-true moment for Chris Clark back in the summer of 2005 when the University of Wisconsin men’s rowing coach spotted Grant and Ross James walking his way at freshman orientation.
You can almost picture Clark rubbing his eyes, making sure he was actually seeing clearly, as he went through a mental checklist: Six-foot-2 or taller? Check. Long arms? Check. Broad shoulders? Check.
And the best part of all? There were two of them.
Little did Clark know as he approached the 6-5 fraternal twins from DeKalb, Ill., that this was the start of something huge.
Not only did the brothers walk on at UW and help the Badgers’ varsity eight boat win an Intercollegiate Rowing Association national title in 2008, they extended their careers beyond college and added their names to an impressive fraternity.
When the men’s eight competition at the London Olympics begins Saturday just west of the city at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre at Dorney Lake, paired up together in the bow of the U.S. boat will be two 24-year-olds who have been virtually inseparable since birth, when Ross entered the world four minutes after Grant.
This marks the 12th consecutive Olympics that the UW men’s team has had at least one representative on the U.S. team and the fourth straight that the Badgers have had two.
Clark would like to say he saw this one coming, but that wouldn’t be true. Because for everything he could see that day seven years ago when he first laid eyes on the brothers James — their height, their shoulders, their arms — he knew passing the eye test was only a beginning point in the process.
It was what Clark would discover over the next few years that would convince him he had something special.
"The bigger the moment," Clark said, "the better they perform."
What Clark couldn’t see in his initial inspection was that the twins were eager to try a sport they knew little about, that they were driven to succeed — no matter the endeavor — and that they worked well with others, particularly each other.
The brothers, who could pass for identical twins, will tell you they learned each of those things from their mother, Cindy Warren-James, a first-grade teacher who raised the boys on her own.
Warren-James’ motto for parenting can be boiled down to this: "If you’re going to have kids," she said, "you better give them a rich environment of opportunities and support them."
And so she did, enrolling the boys in Boy Scouts when they were 6 years old and serving as their troop leader until they were 18, by which point they had become Eagle Scouts.
When Grant and Ross showed a knack for marksmanship along the way, she got them involved in a junior program that led to both winning titles at the 2006 High Power Rifle Marksmanship national championships.
The three went on adventures, including one camping trip per month, every month of the year. Bad weather? No big deal. They pressed on.
"We’d go rock climbing and caving," Warren-James said. "Just try one more adventure so you could just learn about yourself and your environment. ‘Hey, there’s caves in Iowa, let’s go to Iowa and explore the caves.’ "
The twins were excellent students in the classroom — Grant ended up graduating from UW with a degree in mechanical engineering and Ross with one in biological systems engineering — and out of it.
One day, they approached Warren-James with an idea to build a marshmallow shooter. Not buy a marshmallow shooter — build one.
So off to the hardware store the three went, buying the necessary materials before following a how-to manual to put it together. By the time the project was complete, they had made enough for the twins and their friends to use.
One of the things Warren-James liked most from the boys’ childhood was watching from a distance as they solved problems by working together.
"It was a nice balance," she said, "because when they were working on things, one would give the other an idea or they would bounce ideas off of each other. They’ve worked well together for all this time."
That teamwork shows when the twins take their seats near the front of the boat: Grant on the right (starboard) side and Ross on the left (port) side.
"Rowing’s the kind of sport where you’re in a boat with a lot of guys and you have to match up exactly to be the most effective," Grant said. "And with twins, we have a similar body type, so when we’re paired up, we’re very able to match up with each other.
"The other thing is, there’s a lot of competition between us personally. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the better twin?’ So there’s always that innate level of competition that always kept pushing us forward so we didn’t get stagnant."
After UW, the twins earned a spot on the Under-23 national team and eventually the senior national team. A year ago, they were on the U.S. boat that failed to qualify for the Olympics at the World Championships in Slovenia. Since then, it’s been a grind to earn another shot at London.
"The Olympics were the goal in mind, but every day it wasn’t like the Olympic dream," Ross said. "Every day it was winning the race, saving your seat, not getting cut. That was the key for five months — not getting cut."
It came down to the last day of racing in April at the team’s training camp in Chula Vista, Calif. Grant’s spot on the team was secure, but Ross and another competitor were neck and neck for the final seat in the boat. It went to Ross after a team vote that didn’t include Grant because, well, everybody knew which way he’d be voting.
The final step in the twins’ journey to London came in May, when they helped the U.S. earn the eighth and final spot in the Olympics by beating New Zealand and France at a regatta in Switzerland.
The Americans are underdogs — Germany, Canada and Great Britain are the favorites — but that matters little to the James twins, who arrived in London on Friday ready for a memorable experience.
"It wouldn’t have been the same without him," Grant said. "I’m glad we’re experiencing it together. Our mom gets to go along and watch both of her sons compete, so I think that’s just a great way to go about it."