More than six years ago, Randy Ronning started to hear rumbles about the Gearou twins. They hadn’t even finished elementary school yet, but word of the gifted athletes from Zimmerman was spreading fast.
Ronning, the Elk River boys’ tennis coach, took sixth-graders Sam and Josh Gearou to the courts to see if they were as talented as the rumors suggested. They didn’t disappoint.
“I just couldn’t believe how good they were,” Ronning said.
When the two-hour workout was over, Ronning handed the twins a book full of former Elk River tennis player Brandon O’Connell’s program records, which they immediately set their sights on breaking. After becoming the top two players on Elk River’s varsity team as seventh-graders, the twins are poised to do just that in their senior seasons.
Impending records and a 2012 state championship aside, the Gearou twins are remarkable for many more reasons than just tennis.
“They’re a total blessing to our program,” Ronning said. “In six years I’ve never heard a single swear word out of either of those boys.”
When Josh and Sam were 2 months old, Becky and Dennis Gearou adopted them from a Jamaican mother. Of the Gearous’ five children, Josh and Sam were the easiest to raise because “they always had each other,” Becky said.
The twins kept each other busy in their early years, playing baseball and other sports. But when winter hit in Grand Marais — more than 100 miles north of Duluth — Josh and Sam grabbed rackets and hunkered down in a gym.
The Gearous moved to Zimmerman when the twins were 10. Josh and Sam frequented the Life Time Fitness tennis courts from there, going head to head with each other in competitive matches.
“A parent’s worst nightmare,” Becky said.
That wasn’t the last time the boys’ passion for tennis frightened their mom. When Josh and Sam joined the varsity team in seventh grade, she nervously sat courtside at every practice for a month.
“They weren’t uncomfortable. It was just me,” Becky said. “I just didn’t know what to expect, how they would interact with seniors in high school.”
When they were young the only way Ronning could tell the mild-mannered twins apart was by looking at their wrists. Since Josh is righthanded, he has a watch on his left wrist. The lefthanded Sam wears a timepiece on his right arm.
“They were very quiet back then. Whenever they referred to me or any other adult they would answer with ‘sir.’ Kids just don’t do that,” Ronning said. “I still call them by the wrong name sometimes.”
When the twins started playing at Elk River, they were “short, small, but quick as can be,” Ronning said.
Since then Josh and Sam have stretched to be about 6 feet tall while also growing in other areas. Sam plays trombone and Josh the alto saxophone in the high school’s wind symphony and jazz bands. With tennis and music as hobbies, it looks like the Gearou twins will make a career out of coding. A few years ago, after the twins built their own computers, Sam checked out a book on Java software to learn programming.
“He would program for up to four hours in the summer,” Josh said. “He kind of got me into it, too, so I started last year.”
The twins’ interest in coding and athletics will take them to California’s Pomona College in the fall, where they will major in computer science and play for a top tier Division III tennis program.
“I’ve been with [Josh] forever. I don’t think we’ve ever been apart for more than a week or two,” Sam said. “I probably couldn’t see us going to different schools.”
Before they go to college, the Gearou twins have some marks to break. Sam is two off O’Connell’s school record of 167 victories, while Josh is at 159. Both likely will reach the milestone in matches on Saturday.
“This week they should blow by the record and they’ll set it at a place where I don’t think it’ll be broken,” Ronning said. “They’re just the cream of the crop.”
Jack Satzinger is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.