Twins still in step after Olympic switch

AP Photo/Durango Herald, Shaun Stanley

Tracy Barnes, left, gave up her Olympic spot to twin sister Lanny after the latter couldn't compete in a qualifying event.

It goes without saying that biathletes have to be straight shooters, so Tracy Barnes got right to the point when she and twin sister Lanny took their traditional post-competition hike in Ridnaun, Italy.

Tracy, fresh off a strong 10th-place finish in an International Biathlon Union Cup (the last qualifying event that would be counted toward U.S. Olympic selection), had just been named to the team that will compete at next month's Winter Games. Lanny, who was sick and couldn't compete, was next in line for a spot based on past results.

The 31-year-old twins have moved in tandem since they were kids in their hometown of Durango, Colo., whether it was dishing telepathic passes to each other on the soccer field (they were both forwards) or shooting in small bore rifle competitions where their skill eventually led them to be recruited for biathlon. They reached the 2006 Olympics together. Four years ago, Tracy didn't make the team and Lanny made the most of her opportunity, finishing 23rd -- the best U.S. showing in 16 years.

Tracy and Lanny continued on their parallel tracks as they had since the late 1990s. After workouts, whoever did better in training had the other prepare lunch for them. As the months went by, they came to the same conclusion -- this would be their final bid for the biggest stage.

Last week, for the first time in their lives, Tracy deliberately stepped off the path. She told her sister she would decline her spot, automatically elevating Lanny to the team.

Tracy's gesture was equal parts affection and clear-eyed pragmatism toward her mirror image. She honestly believed Lanny was in a better position to excel in Sochi in a year when the U.S. biathlon team can see breakthrough results in sight, much like the U.S. Nordic combined athletes did in the past couple of Olympic cycles after years of laboring in obscurity. "I've always thought she's the stronger athlete," said Tracy. "She disagrees."

A shocked Lanny protested that day too. "This is your spot," she told her twin. "You earned it."

AP Photo/Mark Duncan

Tracy Barnes on giving up her Olympic spot: "It was the biggest decision of my life, but it was an easy decision."

But Tracy wouldn't budge. "She can be very stubborn," Lanny said. "I just know her so well, and I knew that's what she wanted. I was very honored that she thought I could do it."

When that very private conversation was revealed to the public, it went viral. And that has been the biggest surprise of all to the twins and their family -- father Thad Barnes, a builder who taught his daughters to shoot and hunt; mother Deb, a retired high school biology teacher; and their older sister Christie, who is finishing up her residency as an ear, nose and throat specialist.

Biathlon, which draws tens of thousands of fans to events in Europe, is decidedly a niche sport in the United States. "If you get 100 people to a competition, that's a lot," Deb Barnes said. She and her husband are happy their daughters have shined a spotlight on the team, but they're most proud of what Deb called the loving and logical way they worked things out.

"I think it will help [Lanny] to know what her sister has done for her," Deb said. "It'll make her more competitive and stronger."

As one might expect, the twins used nearly identical language to describe their feelings as they were bombarded with media requests.

Lanny, on the phone from Italy: "It's crazy. We never thought it would have this much effect on people."

Tracy, on the phone from New York City: "It kind of blows my mind -- to me, it doesn't feel like a big thing. It was the biggest decision of my life, but it was an easy decision."

There are six women's events in Sochi. Lanny's favorite, and the one in which she gives herself the best odds, is the 15-kilometer individual race.

It happens to fall on Valentine's Day.

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