SAN DIEGO — Seven years ago, Mark Zuckerberg, a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore, started a Web service for college students from his dorm room that fueled a fundamental shift in how people spend time on the Web.
It also dramatically changed how Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss spend their lives offline.
The Olympic oarsmen say Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook and sabotaged their efforts to launch their own social networking site.
They say they might have given up their Olympic dreams to work on ConnectU. Instead they poured their energy into a high-stakes lawsuit against Facebook and competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, finishing sixth in the coxless pairs.
Now the Winklevosses are jumping back into their racing shells with their sights set on London in 2012 as members of the U.S. team training in San Diego.
The Winklevosses got the idea to join crew when they were 14 from their next-door neighbor Ethan Ayer, who rowed at Harvard. They trained with their first coach, James Mangan, in an old railroad shed on the water in Westport, Conn. They ranked among the top 20 junior rowers in the nation when they were sophomores. They became such rowing enthusiasts that they started a program at the private all-boys Brunswick School in their hometown of Greenwich, Conn.
After graduating from Brunswick in 2000, they signed on as varsity rowers at Harvard and trained with rowing icon Harry Parker. Their eight-person rowing team was NCAA champion in 2003 and 2004. After the Summer Olympics, the Winklevosses earned their MBAs from Oxford. And Cameron Winklevoss also co-founded Guest of a Guest, a website that serves up information about "people, places and parties" in New York, Los Angeles and the Hamptons.
They declined to say how they are supporting themselves while training for the Olympics. Neither has a job. Their parents, they say, are self-made. Howard Winklevoss, a former professor of actuarial science at the Wharton School, runs a successful retirement-plan financing and forecasting business in Connecticut.
Unlike the sport of suing Facebook, rowing is a sport that does not come with a lot of headlines or riches. Rowers have no professional league or endorsement contracts, and few people could even name an Olympic rower. The training regi- men is exceptionally demanding.
It may be the ideal sport for the Winklevoss twins, who not only look alike with their broad shoulders and wavy light-brown hair but also move in unison, Tyler pulling the oar on the starboard side from the bow seat and Cameron pulling the oar and steering on the port side. Rowing is the quintessential team sport, in which, when all oars are in sync, the rower feels almost weightless -- a state known as a "swing."
They are up at 6 a.m. to train six days a week, two to three times a day, in boats on the water, in the gym lifting weights or riding bikes for 40 miles with a seven-mile hill climb. When they leave the boathouse, they work on the litigation against Facebook, watch movies or fire off e-mails. They are asleep by 10 p.m.
"We have a challenge on and off the water," Tyler Winklevoss said. "The litigation is not something that slows us down."