U.S. men’s eights, led by James twins, storm into finals

July 31, 2012

On Aug 2., the U.S. men’s eight will row on the majestic Eton Dorney Lake in the Olympic final. Among their roster of oarsmen are 6-feet-5 twin brothers with winning smiles.

Grant and Ross James, 24, grew up in a small town in Illinois, where their single mom raised them on a first-grade teacher’s salary. The boys weren’t involved in competitive sports growing up, despite relentless recruitment from basketball coaches. They played baseball for fun, but invested most of their time in becoming Eagle Scouts and model citizens.

Their mother, Cindy Warren-James or “Mama James,” as the boys lovingly refer to her, will be watching them race in the final on Wednesday. The boys nominated her for Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You Mom” campaign, which helped sponsor her to see her sons compete in the Olympics.

The brothers’ Olympic journey started just seven years ago. While attending their freshman orientation at the University of Wisconsin, Badgers rowing coach Chris Clark ushered them aside.

“They hit the profile, and they were twins,” Clark said of his first encounter with the boys. “Double whammy.”

Wisconsin’s rowing program is built largely from a pool of beginners like the James brothers, who have never touched an oar in their life.

“They pull in mostly walk-ons, and they’re able to shape them into elite oarsmen and catch them up to speed,” Grant James said of Wisconsin’s program. “I attribute them with a lot of our success and preparing us for this level.”

“They’re enablers,” Clark said of the twins. “They make the boat go. They’re flow guys; they’re glue guys. They’re 100 percent reliable.”

Which may have been the reason the twins were the only two rowers kept on board from the 2011 team. Among the six new oarsmen are two Washington-area high school graduates: Giuseppe Lanzone of Annandale, a McLean alum; and Potomac’s David Banks, who went to Churchill.

“Not one of these boys is an Ivy Leaguer,” Clark said. “It’s another interesting thing that busts stereotypes about the sport. . . .

“Six out of the eight of us are engineers, and we have a male model. He’s kind of like our opposite end of the spectrum. He keeps us level, and we keep him a little bit nerdy. We all get along really well.”

The new team is under the guidance of Mike Teti, who coached the U.S. men’s eight to victory in 2004, and to bronze in Beijing. Labeled a “screamer” in a recent profile by the New Yorker, Teti has been an exceptional coach, the James brothers said.

“He likes to put you in the most stressful position possible while training,” Grant James said. “I think it’s just because if you can handle that, you should be able to handle race day when everything’s on the line and the nerves start showing up. He yells and coaches do that. He does it when it’s due, but we take it.”

Added Ross: “We’ve been doing really well under his leadership.”

That was certainly apparent in their qualifying race Saturday, when they made a powerful statement by winning their heat and advancing straight to the final.

“We have one race for all the marbles,” Ross said. “So that’s what we’re focusing on right now.”

Although they’re up against some stiff competition, namely Germany with a three-year winning streak, they have a solid shot at a medal.

“Their lack of a race record isn’t an impediment for a team like this. A little boat magic and things can fly,” Clark said.

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