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Rowing Twins Take Control

July 26, 2008, 1:39 p.m. (ET)

Eighteen days before the Opening Ceremony in Beijing, on a placid lake in New Jersey, identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss pulled the oars of a white racing shell 2,000 meters down a buoy-lined lane.

Wearing matching sunglasses, matching haircuts, and matching outfits except for the color of their shirts, the 26-year-olds coiled and uncoiled their 6-foot-5 frames in perfect synchrony under a white hazy sky, on an 80-degree morning.

It was the picture of peace.

But underlying the fluid strokes and the yin-yang balance of their bodies in motion, was turbulence. You wouldn’t know it by looking, but it had been there a while.

For the past four years, the brothers had been engaged in a legal war over the origin of Facebook and whether their idea for a university-wide computer social network was stolen by a former employee.

For the past four years the twins had committed themselves to trying to make the 2008 Olympic team, but they placed second at the U.S. Team Trials in the coxless pairs boat (only one boat per nation was allowed) and to make the eight would require outperforming some of the returning gold medalists from 2004.

After practice, the two rowers sat in the boathouse and revealed how they became enchanted by rowing’s purity and meritocracy. What they didn’t say – but seemed quite clear – was how those qualities may be particularly seductive in light of recent events.

* * *

Their athletic partnership began 12 years ago outside an old railroad shed on the water in Westport, Conn.. When James Mangan saw two “skinny little fellas” trampling toward him, he automatically smiled. The Irish-born rowing club coach was a twin himself, and he knew that siblings had a built-in advantage in rowing, where timing and intuition were crucial to success. He also noticed that the brothers were about 5-foot-11 and still growing.

The twins, however, had no idea what they were in for or where it would lead.

Mangan sat them on two ergometers and said, “Pull for 20 minutes.”

Twelve minutes into the piece, Cameron realized, “Oh, this is kind of challenging.” At 17 minutes he thought, “I don’t know if I can do any more.”

“Eventually, you come to a point where you make a decision to keep going. Once you go through that wall, you can’t stop,” Cameron said. “I started to understand what it was like to put myself on the line. It was a pretty interesting day.”

When they finished, Mangan looked at the readout. Their scores were among the top 20 in the country for juniors.

And they were only 14.

Subsequent sessions became duels of wills. Neither Tyler nor Cameron was willing to quit as long as the other one persevered. Remarkably, their times would always match – within one or two seconds.

With Mangan’s encouragement and the Winklevosses’ ambition, the twins quickly achieved their first major goal: making the junior national team. At the 1999 Junior World Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, they finished eighth in the pairs with coxswain.

When they returned to the private all-boys Brunswick School in Greenwich, Conn., they fulfilled another dream. The school had no crew, so they started a team. A year later, it achieved varsity status and continues to exist.

After graduating from Brunswick in 2000, they entered Harvard, lured, in part, by the chance to work with Harry Parker, a rowing icon who has been coaching the Crimson crew since 1963.

“They were both strong,” Parker recalled, “but Cameron was a step ahead in terms of technique. Tyler needed to learn a lot – a lot – and it took him a good long while. To his credit, Tyler kept plugging away till he got it.”

Cameron made the freshman eight and went undefeated as a member of the junior varsity eight in 2002. He spent the next two years undefeated as a member of the varsity crew that won back-to-back national titles in 2003 and 2004.

In 2004, Tyler joined Cameron on the varsity and Parker told reporters at the time that he would always remember that eight as being “on a par with the best crews I have had in my 41 years at Harvard.”

It was also an Olympic year and Harvard challenged some of the best international teams that summer. In June, at the 2004 Royal Henley Regatta in England, the Crimson advanced to the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup final in a two-boat race against the Netherlands. With the twins in the “engine room” – Tyler in seat five and Cameron in seat six – Harvard lost by two-thirds of a boat length, but it was a strong result, considering that the Dutch boat went on to capture the silver medal at the Athens Olympics.

In July, at the Lucerne World Cup, the Crimson defeated national teams from Britain and France to advance to the final in yet another pre-Olympic tune-up.

“To make the grand final was pretty unheard of,” Tyler said. “We made a statement for collegiate rowing in America because we were able to hang with international crews.”

When their college careers ended, the economics majors teamed up to win US National titles in the pair, in 2005 and 2007.

* * *

The trophies were hard-fought and well-earned but for all the power, strength and perfection displayed on the water, there were undercurrents of personal devastation and frustration.

In June 2002, the summer before the twins’ junior year, they lost their only sibling, an older sister, to what the New York City Medical Examiner determined to be an accidental drug overdose. She was 23, an actress and an athlete who had attended Williams College and Georgetown University.

“She was a trailblazer both academically and physically for us,” Cameron said. “She’s a huge part of who we are.” She will be remembered in Beijing. The twins have painted her first and middle names, Amanda Gesine, on the bow of their Olympic racing shell.

A year and a half later, in November 2003, their lives intersected with Mark Zuckerberg, an underclassman whom they hired to do some programming for their online start-up, a collegiate social networking site called Harvard Connection. Harvard Connection would eventually become Connect U.com, and Zuckerberg would eventually become the world’s youngest billionaire, according to Forbes – for founding a similar site called Facebook.

The problem was, the Winklevosses and their colleagues believed Zuckerberg stole their idea and some of its source code for Facebook, and filed a lawsuit on September 2, 2004, that sparked a four-year legal battle. Connect U’s allegations included copyright infringement, breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets, and fraud. In return, Facebook sued Connect U for business torts and unfair business practices.

This year, on February 22, both parties agreed to settle, but the legal tug of war continued all the way into the summer and included an order as recently as June 25, the day before the Winklevosses learned that their second-place finish in the pairs boat at the US Olympic Team Trials was about to be upgraded into an Olympic berth.

When the pair who won the Trials, Matt Schnobrich and Josh Inman, were named to the Olympic eight, they relinquished their places in the pairs boat to the Winklevoss twins.

The brothers did not tell anyone, however, until the official papers were signed. “I’ve seen things change,” Tyler said, not immediately recognizing how true that statement rang for his life off the water.

In fact, the two-man boat they will row in Beijing is a perfect antidote for all the vicissitudes they endured in their entrepreneurial careers.

In the pair, they will have complete control. The boat has no coxswain, so they must steer it themselves. Cameron does this with a mechanism under his shoe in the stern of the boat. Cameron’s position also makes him the “stroke,” or pace-setter. Behind him, Tyler tells him when to push hard and when to hold steady; he is the strategist.

To prepare for the Games, the brothers have been rowing twice a day under the guidance of 75-year-old coach Ted Nash, a two time Olympic medalist in the coxless fours (1960 gold, 1964 bronze) who will be attending his ninth Olympics as a coach.

Nash thinks his protégés have yet to peak. But he predicts more than improvement.

“I say in four years, they could be dominant,” Nash said.

For now, he said, “The thing I get out of it is seeing them develop. They have unbelievable confidence in themselves.”

What the Winklevosses like most, it seems, is that rowing is honest.

“There’s no such thing as cheating,” Tyler said. “The correlation between work and success is tangible. There are no judges. There is no question.

At the end of the race, he said, “The only thing is honor and victory and nothing more.”


Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.