By Alexa Corse
Every year in middle school, Jim and Joe Rosa would run the required mile in gym class. The identical twins always outstripped the other students, but the real competition was just between the two of them.
“If I ran faster than him, I’d walk into his class and trash talk him,” Joe recalled. “If he ran faster than me, he’d come into my class and say, ‘I got you.’”
In the backyard pool, Jim and Joe would race incessantly, cajoling their mother to keep time with a stopwatch as they tried to beat each other’s best times. They also tested themselves against their older siblings, Kikki and Larry, who went on to swim for Rutgers University. In high school, the twins climbed to the top of the national cross country rankings while placing first and second at a series of elite meets. They often finished seconds apart, although Joe tended to edge out Jim.
Going to the same college wasn’t always the plan. But both Jim and Joe were inspired by the achievements of then-Cardinal superstars Elliott Heath, Jake Riley and Chris Derrick, who finished 1-2-3 and only fractions of a second apart to help Stanford claim the 2010 Pac-10 team title. To the Rosas, the trio’s accomplishments represented a program in which every runner contributed to the team’s success overall.
The Rosas have pursued their running — and sibling rivalry — from their hometown of West Windsor, New Jersey to Stanford. Both fifth-year seniors have been named All-Americans in cross country and track and field: Joe has earned the honor three times while Jim has twice. Now in their final year on The Farm, Jim and Joe helped lead Stanford cross country to a third-place finish in the 2015 NCAA championships, which took place in late November. They will compete for Stanford as distance runners during the indoor and outdoor track seasons and are aiming to qualify for this summer’s Olympics.
Jim and Joe rarely run together on long training runs, which are supposed to be at a controlled pace. If the twins are together, their competitive streaks can turn a 15-mile run into a de facto race, sapping energy that is needed for actual race days.
Head coach Chris Miltenberg doesn’t waste the opportunity for good-natured teasing.
“He always makes fun of us for not running together,” Joe said with a laugh. “He hasn’t been able to convince us to do it yet.”
Miltenberg has coached identical twins before the Rosas, however, and his priority when coaching twins is to recognize them as individuals.
“I always get a kick out of it,” Miltenberg said. “But I’m not a twin. They probably need that space from each other.”
Miltenberg admires the Rosas’ competitive spirit and has worked hard to make sure Jim and Joe channel their motivation to benefit the team as a whole. The Rosas credit much of their collegiate success to Miltenberg and assistant coach John Oliver, who both started coaching at Stanford during the twins’ sophomore year. Miltenberg’s emphasis on a team ethos has shaped the Rosas’ time at The Farm.
“In the four years that I’ve been here, we’ve changed things quite a lot,” said Miltenberg. “[Jim and Joe] were some of the key guys that bought in right off the bat.”
Not long after Miltenberg’s arrival on the Farm, Joe recalled the then-new coach admonishing a runner who had arrived to practice a few minutes late: Be on time or don’t come at all.
It is Miltenberg’s seemingly boundless energy and commitment that won the Rosas’ respect — and motivated them to fulfill his high expectations. Those same traits can also be an opportunity for humor. Once, Miltenberg started an early morning practice by saying he had hardly slept the night before. The cause of his sleeplessness: thinking about the team had made him too fired up to rest.
“We’re like, ‘Coach, you have two kids and a wife. Do you ever stop thinking about us?’” Joe recalled facetiously. Then he reflected more seriously on Miltenberg’s influence. “He lives it. We’d be doing him a disservice if we didn’t live it as well.”
Under Miltenberg’s guidance, the Rosas have excelled at the height of collegiate competition in cross country and track. At the 2014 NCAA outdoor track championships, Jim finished sixth in the 10,000 meters in 28:57.51. At the same meet, Joe placed seventh in the 5,000 meters in 13:31.69.
The Rosas’ father swam on Puerto Rico’s national team, and the twins hope to follow in his footsteps by representing Puerto Rico at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Since 1984, Puerto Rico has sent its own team to the Olympics despite being a commonwealth of the United States.)
Jim is a few inches taller than Joe and is said to have a rounder jaw. But upon first meeting them, the differences between the tall, red-headed Rosas are barely discernible, if at all. Growing up, the twins say they used to trade places in school, although they could never fool their parents.
The similarities are not only cosmetic, according to teammate and close friend Justin Brinkley, a senior.
“They tend to break out into the same song or quote at the same time,” Brinkley said. “And it’s almost always in the context of making a joke.”
Despite these similarities, the Rosas say it does not take long for their Stanford teammates to learn how to tell them apart. That is a sign of how much time the team spends together, even outside of practice. If his teammates are not sleeping or doing homework, said Brinkley, they’re likely hanging out with each other.
As twins, the Rosas have a unique bond — and rivalry. But they also fit seamlessly into the greater ethos of the team.
For the Rosas, meaningful memories with teammates range from the inspiring examples set by former, older teammates to lighthearted moments and idiosyncratic traditions. Each spring, the team makes sure to rally together for Midnight Breakfast, one night when the dining halls serve breakfast at midnight. Jim and Joe agree that Midnight Breakfast is their favorite campus tradition, even though they and their teammates are often more enthusiastic than anyone else in the dining hall.
The Rosas have grown into leaders on the team, as they strive to set the example with Miltenberg’s emphasis on discipline. This commitment and close bond with their teammates has defined the Rosas’ experience as Stanford athletes.
“I care about how my teammates do,” Joe said. “That’s the most important thing. So it’s hard to have any more expectations for Jim or care any more about Jim than I do for the rest of my team.”
But even with the team as their priority, it’s hard to keep the sibling rivalry at bay for long.
“The only time I’m really thinking about Joe in a race is the last hundred meters,” Jim said. “If he’s near me, then pride really sets in.”
Contact Alexa Corse at corsea ‘at’ stanford.edu.