Winklevoss brothers

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Rowing machines

Winklevoss twins hope to form successful pair in Beijing

Tyler (left) and Cameron Winklevoss, posing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, hope to terminate the competition in Beijing.
Tyler (left) and Cameron Winklevoss, posing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, hope to terminate the competition in Beijing. (Kimberly White/Reuters)

 

By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff

July 27, 2008

PRINCETON, N.J. – Lake Carnegie lies still and brown under the gathering summer sun, the early hour no match for the heat of July.

A pretty stone bridge arches across the man-made lake, which stretches along the Princeton University campus toward Kingston. It’s not yet 8 o’clock, but the pastoral calm is repeatedly undercut by the whine of cars and trucks as rush hour takes over this idyllic college town.

Across the placid surface of the lake, three boats are pounding down the meters: the United States Olympic women’s heavyweight eight, the women’s four, and the men’s sweep pair. In the pair, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, 26-year-old twins from Greenwich, Conn., pull smoothly and strongly. Their strokes are identical, but mirror images: lefthanded Cameron pulls the oar on the starboard side from the bow seat and righthanded Tyler pulls the oar on the port side and steers, moving the rudder with his foot on a toeplate. Their bodies, carbon copies, move like an assembly line, four legs pushing away simultaneously, four arms stretching and flexing in unison, their faces identically stonefaced, eyes protected by identical sunglasses. Cameron bites his lip as he strokes.

In the final 50 yards, they pull harder and faster, while US pairs coach Ted Nash, chugging alongside in the launch, urges them on. They pull past the buoy markers just about even with the eight, then double over, spent, as Nash triumphantly clicks his stopwatch.

“I’m very proud of them,” said Nash. “That was a good piece.”

Tyler and Cameron have peppered newspaper headlines and business gossip columns for the last four years after they and classmate Divya Narendra sued fellow Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg for, they believe, stealing Facebook. Their complaint to the Harvard disciplinary board, which was followed by the lawsuit, claimed the trio paid Zuckerberg to write computer codes for their nascent online social networking site and that he abandoned their project, and instead launched Facebook as his own. Zuckerberg is now a paper billionaire and ConnectU, the twins’ site, has floundered.

In February, a settlement was reached requiring Facebook to give Narendra and the Winklevosses a chunk of change and stock. But litigation is ongoing as the parties dispute the worth of Facebook, and thus the worth of its stock. To further muddy the water, another Harvard student, Aaron Greenspan, claims he invented a Facebook-like website months before Zuckerberg.

The Winklevosses have taken a lot of guff about the lawsuit, because it’s fun to ridicule Harvard, and because they have a background that includes Greenwich, summers in Quogue, and prep school. Also, they are impossibly constructed: 6 feet 5 inches tall, with shoulders that jut out like coat hangers, their limbs wrapped in the long, strong muscles typical of rowers, their heads crowned with identical waves of light brown hair. But the Winklevosses escape easy characterization.

“Inside, everything’s working all the time with them,” Nash said, pointing to his head. “What you see isn’t what you get.”

Not a trivial pursuit

Most of the members of the US Olympic rowing team are training here during the final countdown to the Games in Beijing, spending long days moving between the lake, the Princeton boathouse, and its weight rooms and rowing tanks. After two hours on the water, the twins retire to PJ’s Pancake House downtown, order omelettes and pancakes, and share their thoughts.

“One of the cool things about amateur athletics,” said Cameron, “is that I think the pursuit is sort of the pursuit of excellence for nothing more than trying to be excellent. At the end of the day, going fast in the water, in its own intrinsic value, doesn’t mean much more than the time that you put on the clock. But I think it’s the focus and the effort and what you put in to become excellent, and the fact that it is, in some respects, meaningless, that makes it all the more interesting.

“We’re getting a lot out of it, but it’s not like an NBA championship, or something like that. We’re trying to be good at something for the sake of being good.”

Cameron nudges his brother, almost imperceptibly, and says, “You ready?” and the two then switch plates, each finishing off the other’s meal.

“I think people get caught up in what’s the value of rowing – what does it do for you?” said Tyler, “and that’s just totally missing the larger picture.”

Rowing is all about building and holding strength. Once you learn how to pull an oar and steer the boat, then it’s all guts, who can cough up another lung after stroking until their chest burns and their eyes bug out. In college, the Winklevosses rowed in the engine room of the eight, the middle four seats that generate pure power. Since then, they have spent time at single sculling, the eight, the four, and the pair.

The brothers began rowing in high school at Saugatuck Rowing Club under the tutelage of James Mangan (whose eyes lit up when he first spotted the 6-2 high school freshmen strolling around the dock) and they founded the crew program at the Brunswick School. They got an idea of their talent and potential when their ergometer tests ranked them in the top 20 juniors in the nation as sophomores. They were selected for the US Junior National Team in 1999 and moved on to Harvard, where they rowed in the heavyweight eight for Harry Parker.

Their successes piled up with the Crimson, and their eight was the NCAA champion in 2003 and ’04.

“Rowing is an unusual combination of strength and endurance,” said Parker, who has been training collegiate champions and Olympians for 46 years. “They’ve got the prototypical rowers’ body, long and strong. Rowing has always been a bit of a tall man’s sport; that’s partly just leverage. They have a pretty high level of natural ability; they’re strong and very fit, but they’ve also worked hard in training, both while at Harvard and since. They’ve earned their own way.”

Like many twins, Tyler and Cameron entwine in conversation, often finishing each other’s sentences, and sometimes trading clauses several times before the thought is complete. Both majored in economics, and they share Olympic dreams as well as plans for an entrepreneurial future, but Parker marvels at how close the brothers have remained in their rowing ability. “It’s quite remarkable – they’ve been just very, very close to each other,” Parker said. “On the ergometer we use to measure fitness, they were always very, very close. I got a call last spring from Fritz Hagerman, who works on physiological testing of the US oarsmen, and he was really excited because he was testing them and they were scoring well, and almost at identical values.”

Great strides

After graduating from Harvard in 2004, the Winklevosses spent a year and a half in single sculls, still training out of Newell Boathouse. They had the luxury of time to simply train, as their family had plenty of financial resources. But in the spring of 2006, after winning a National Selection Regatta, they were invited to the national camp. Their base is Princeton, but they have also trained in California and at Clemson.

“Their progress since they’ve been here has been monumental,” said Nash. “They were in the Pan Am meet [last summer] and they won a gold medal in Rio [with the eight]. They were indispensable for that meet. All the people in that boat were quite new. These fellows rose up very clearly and you could see that their progress was going to be formidable. They also rowed with [US men’s coach] Mike Teti at the Clemson winter camp, and he also identified them as being with great talent.”

Seating identical twins in the pair seems obvious, but the Winklevosses have not specialized in the event, rowing in the pair a month or two of every year. They finished second at the Olympic trials in June, but when the first-place team, Josh Inman and Matt Schnobrich, chose to compete as members of the eight, the Winklevosses took over the top spot. They will be rowing in their first Olympics, newcomers in a deep international field.

“As far as racing goes, they’re making great improvement,” said Nash. “We have no qualms about saying it’s a big uphill battle, because we’re a brand-new pair in an event that’s stacked. I think we have high aspirations, lots of spirit, and they love the technicalities and the discipline of the sport. They are professional in their minds about how they do this. They are very disciplined people.”

Their precision is doubly impressive because it’s, well, doubled.

“I’ve practiced with them all year, and they’ve got it down to the second,” said heavyweight coxswain Marcus McElhenny, shaking his head and chuckling. “For a 7:30 practice, they stroll in here at 7:29. They kill me.”

They have been training only two months with their full focus on the pair.

“The way it shook out, we ended up in the pair,” said Tyler. “We thought it was a good fit for us.”

The final US team for Beijing was decided in late June, but the journey is a four-year commitment for all the rowers. Tyler and Cameron committed themselves after college, and though they were raised with great privilege, that advantage evaporates on the water.

“We’re a sport that’s 75 percent slow-twitch fibers for endurance and a massive 25 percent for speed,” said Nash. “They have to be trained that this is going to take time to generate those speeds, strength, endurance, and the mental ability to withstand pain.”

“If you miss a practice, you pay,” said Tyler. “It’s a direct correlation. You see it. It’s impossible to not be hit over the head with that reality.”

Perhaps that’s one reason why the Facebook fiasco was especially stinging to the Winklevosses, because rowing demands individuals work at their limit for the benefit of a team. Teammates are supposed to pull with you.

“Everybody counts on every stroke,” said Tyler, and his brother nodded in agreement.