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Brotherly inspiration

Published February 26, 2004

NEW PORT RICHEY - Vinnie Lowe first noticed the way Billy and Matt Bullwinkel pushed each other when the twins were freshmen, in their first season as wrestlers.

One drill called for two wrestlers to compete "live" and without breaks until one gives up and says he quits.

It builds endurance and reinforces the mental toughness the sport requires, but as far as establishing one Bullwinkel superior to the other, it just didn't work.

"Neither one would quit," the Rams coach said. "They went an hour, an hour and 15 minutes. We had to stop them, because neither one was going to say anything."

For four years, the Bullwinkels have done everything together, rising at 5:30 a.m. for early-morning workouts and rising to the county's elite level of athletes as inseparably as you'd expect twins to be.

It's rare to hear someone speak of one without the other: you go up against Ridgewood, you have to face the Bullwinkels, who are athleticly conjoined.

"I don't know that they can go any real length of time without knowing what the other one is doing," Lowe said. "It's amazing to me that they get through a school day."

They do that and then some, arriving at school at 6 a.m. for a two-mile run, multiple sets of 50 crunches, maybe push-ups or wrestling drills as time allows.

They practice together after school, rush home for dinner, then go back out for another run, two brothers taking parallels paths to the same success.

The sibling oneupmanship has created two of the county's most dominant wrestlers, combining for a 98-2 record as seniors and legitimate shots at a state championship in Lakeland this week.

Neither can imagine reaching his goal of a top-two finish without his brother's help.

"I don't like him to do better than me, and he doesn't like me better than him, so that makes us both better," said Billy, who is about a minute older but is now the lighter twin, competing in the 125-pound class. "If we're doing push-ups and I do 25, Matt's going to do 30. We'll run sprints and say we're going to do 10, but Matt will do one more, then I do two more and we just keep going."

Billy's record is 50-1, Matt's 48-1, the difference because Matt earned two more byes in tournaments than his brother. It's a factor of sheer luck, but yet another source of ribbing that one can be the tiniest margin ahead of the other.

The need to keep up with each other's success isn't limited to wrestling. When the two go fishing, if one has caught one more fish than the other, the boat isn't going in until they're even. ("We've stayed out an extra hour doing that," Matt says.)

Matt's grade-point average, he humbly boasts, is 0.02 points ahead of Billy's heading into their final semester.

"They feed off each other," Lowe said. "Whether it's brotherly love-type support or just each one trying to one-up the other, between the two, it's a great combination."

When Ridgewood went to a preseason national tournament in North Carolina last fall, Matt cruised into the semifinals, locking up a top-six finish, but Billy lost early, putting him the consolation bracket and making such a showing difficult for him.

"His motivation going through wrestlebacks was "There's no way Matt's going to place in this and I"m not," Lowe said. "And when it all worked out, Matt took sixth and Billy took fifth. It's such a powerful motivation."

Since their sophomore year, they've wrestled in neighboring weight classes, Matt one ahead of Billy, who has been a consistent catalyst for his brother simply by winning, literally right in front of him.

"This year, it got to the point where we won't let Matt watch most of Billy's match, because he spends so much energy and emotion just watching his brother," Lowe said.

The way they're inspired by each's success, pained by the other's struggles, makes them a modern-day Corsican Brothers. When Billy fell one win short of placing at last year's state, Matt immediately followed his brother's final loss with one of his own, on the same mat.

This week, their dream finish to their high school career isn't just to win a state championship, but to also watch their brother achieve the same goal. Then they have the rest of their lives to argue over whose gold medal is shinier.

"It would make my day," Billy said. "We've been working at it since our freshman year. We didn't work this hard this long not to do it. For both of us, this is it."

Of the two, Matt might have the clearer path to a state crown, if only because Billy shares a class with Brandon senior Cesar Grajales, a two-time state champion and three-time finalist.

Lowe warned not to think of Grajales as a lock in their potential semifinal showdown, because the defending champ could himself going up against not one Bullwinkel, but two.

"I know, going into that match, Billy's motivation is going to be, "If Matt can make it, I've got to make it,"' Lowe said. "They can do that for each other."

The familiar orange-and-blue walls of the Ridgewood wrestling room have been "a home away from home" for the Bullwinkels over the past four years, Matt said. Both hope to finish in the top two this week, which would qualify them for the prestigious Senior Nationals tournament in Cleveland. Even if their wrestling days are over, the twins said they'll likely continue the early-morning workout together.

"It's strange, and difficult, to imagine what Ridgewood wrestling would be like without Bullwinkels," Lowe said. "People always ask who's the better one. It's any given day. One day, Matt gets the best of Billy, the next day, Billy gets the best of Matt. I think that's what makes them so good."

[Last modified February 26, 2004, 01:31:33]

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