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2016 Rio Olympics: Wierzbowska sisters form 'water and fire' bond through rowing

RIO DE JANEIRO — The Polish Olympic sister duo of Anna and Maria Wierzbowska didn’t like each other when they were children.

Watching them interact as they prepared for Monday’s women’s coxless pair race that landed them in the Olympic semifinals, one would never have guessed that. Anna, who rowed for the University of Southern California from 2009 through 2012, explained they often subconsciously do things simultaneously.

“We’re saying the same stuff at the same time,” Anna said. As she said that, her sister began to say “same time” before stopping to let Anna finish her thought. “And everyone is like, ‘Oh, sisters,’ and I’m like, ‘C’mon, I was supposed to say that!'”

The two continued to step on each others’ words as they repeatedly collapsed into fits of laughter at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas training center a few blocks inland from Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

It’s another case of distance making the heart grow fonder. When Anna left Krakow, Poland, for USC, the two stopped spending all day, everyday together.

They had the same issues with bickering and craving of individuality that so many other siblings do, despite being more than four years apart.

“I was a kid, I kind of didn’t want her to do everything that I do,” Anna said. “It was annoying. I wanted to be unique and she kept on following my steps.”

Maria started swimming when she was five, but the more she watched her sister, the more she became interested in rowing. Anna looked like she was having fun rowing along the Vistula River outside the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow — and she was getting into better shape.

The fitness component was one of the reasons older sister Anna began rowing in the first place.

“I was quite overweight, so that was the first reason,” Anna said. “Also, my parents are diving instructors so we were always traveling to the ocean.”

Anna said a lot of Polish kids row for fun in after-school clubs. Because of this, a lot of coaches didn’t pay much attention to her. She said meeting different people inspired her to train harder and helped her become a force in Poland. As Anna got better, Maria took notice. She wanted to race, too.

But Anna didn’t let her.

“At the beginning, we didn’t like each other,” Maria said. “She didn’t want me to start so I actually had to wait a bit.”

Maria finally got into the boat when she was 12 years old. Starting so late relative to her peers put her behind, but swimming competitively had taught her how to improve.

“If you want to train for sports, you have to go into trainings and practice,” she said. “I knew that (rowing) is something that I wanted to do so I tried to learn as fast as I could.”

Five years later, she placed second at the European Junior Championships. In 2013, she finished fourth in the Junior World Championships.

Anna was also getting better. She made the Polish national team, where she met Ewa Tymoszewska. Tymoszewska was preparing to start at USC. She told Anna about opportunities offered by the Los Angeles school. The California sunshine and the potential for an athletic scholarship at USC intrigued Anna, holding more appeal for her than the hefty admission price of the other school she had been considering, the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

She emailed USC, and director of rowing and head coach Zenon Babraj responded. He asked Anna for her weight, height and 2,000 meter time.

By this point, she was in shape. Her 2k time was 7:26. Babraj was interested.

“She had really, really good potential and great power,” he said in a phone call. “Her test scores weren’t the greatest, (but she) had the drive and the dream and the ambition.”

She eventually became an All-American, a captain of the Trojans, and in her senior year, Anna helped lead her team to a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships. She would shave nearly a minute off of her 2k time, dropping to 6:37, a Polish record.

“Within one year, she was one of the leaders of the team — she drove the team, actually,” Babraj said. He explained how Anna was able to encourage people around her to work harder. "(She’s) very persistent, very driven and very intelligent,” Babraj said. “She is the best for us and changed the program.”

However, upon graduating from USC with a degree in international relations in 2012, Anna didn’t want to continue rowing.

“It was too much,” she said. “Really, it was tough and after four years, it was just enough.”

She took a job at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles while she and Maria continued getting closer.

As their relationship grew stronger, they came up with an interesting proposition: they should team up.

“I kind of realized that this is not over yet for me and I want to come back and give it a shot,” Anna said.

The age difference made pairing up in competition a challenge, because Maria — at this point in time, 17 — wasn’t old enough to compete in the under-23 category. They had to wait for her to turn 18 and then asked the coaches if they could row together.

“They said, good luck, basically,” Anna said. “A month later, we won (our) first nationals.”

The two said they struggled in their first year in the boat together, in 2013, but they improved. In May of this year at an international regatta in Switzerland, they qualified for the Rio Olympics.

Chemistry is important in the sport, as the rowers must move in perfect sync. If one isn’t right, the boat veers off course.

“We have a huge bond, a sister bond, and we a huge advantage because we understand each other better,” Anna said.

The two wear matching bracelets with a rope band and a golden plate that says #SisterPower. Despite their chemistry in the boat and demeanor on the deck, the two are very different people.

“We’re like water and fire,” Anna said. “This is how we balance each other out.”

Anna called herself emotional and expressive, saying “I worry too much,” and, “I’m very nervous.” When Anna started talking about Maria, the younger sister cut in.

“I’m always calmed down,” Maria said. “I don’t want to hurry.”

Anna remains amazed at Maria’s demeanor prior to races. While Anna is stressing over the upcoming activity, Maria has turned some attention to different tasks.

“She’s able to watch the cooking channel an hour before racing!” Anna said. “(It’s) like, ‘Hi, today we’ll talk about making pastry,’ and I’m like, ‘What are you watching?!'”

The sisters started laughing, and Maria responded simply.

“I can focus,” she said between giggles. “It’s good.”

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