The event is so demanding, it's called "the floating leg press." Formally, it is pair with coxswain, in which two rowers and a 110-pound cox are expected to cover 2,000 meters with flawless synchrony and feral intensity, and no pair has ever been better suited for it than the Abbagnale brothers, Giuseppe, 33, and Carmine, 30, who train on the Bay of Naples. The Abbagnales have won seven of the last nine world championships and are poised to win their third straight Olympic gold medal.
Their daily routine seldom varies. In the dark of morning they run four miles from their homes in Pompeii to Castellammare di Stabia, a rundown resort town on the lower shin of Italy's boot. Vesuvius forms a hulking outline on the horizon as the Abbagnales, joined by their cox, Giuseppe di Capua, slip their shell into the murky Mediterranean. No other champion rowers prepare on the open sea as do these brothers, who waste valuable energy dodging speedboats and tankers. They stroke as many as 20 miles along the littered shoreline before hitting the weights and heading to their day jobs—Giuseppe as a teller in a bank, Carmine as a building surveyor. In midafternoon there is another three-hour training session.
Giuseppe (6'2", 196 pounds), the stroke, and Carmine (6'1", 191) give several inches and several dozen pounds each to rivals. But the Abbagnales are imposing all the same: thighs thick as Ionic columns, practically square torsos, the unblinking stares of heavyweight champs. "They start like animals, with whole abandon," says Kris Korzeniowski, the U.S. crew coach. "Like it's the last race in their life." By the halfway point in most races, they have dominated the field. In victory they sit somber and unspeaking, while Di Capua does a jig in the bow. "In the beginning, we maybe laughed once or twice," says Giuseppe, or Peppe, as he is called. "But we control ourselves. It is a matter of character."
The Abbagnales grew up on a commercial flower farm and in their mid-teens entered the orbit of their uncle, Giuseppe La Mura, a physician and rowing fanatic whose most gifted charge actually may have been the youngest Abbagnale, Agostino, 25. Agostino paced Italy's quad sculling team to victory at Seoul in '88, giving the clan three gold medals at those Olympics. He retired in 1989 because of phlebitis.
La Mura gave the older Abbagnale boys a demanding work load, lengthened their strokes and tried them in various boats before teaming them in due con—or "pair with"—in 1980. They won their first world title the next year. "Peppe is very insecure," La Mura says, "so Carmine's tranquillity bothered him. But they have come together technically." The brothers have tried competing separately, but with little luck. "They have fights with each other, call each other stupid," says Matt Smith, a former U.S. rower who assisted Thor Nilsen, the onetime director of Italy's rowing program. "But that's the great thing about being brothers. You can do that and still be focused. Once the race starts, it's intimidating how focused they can be."
The Abbagnales have also been unable to pry themselves free of the 4'11" Di Capua, 34, whom Nilsen refers to as "50 kilos of dead weight." A nonstop chatterer, he flits like a fanciful elf around the brothers grim. During races TV cameras focus mostly on Di Capua barking his cadence, at the expense of the inexpressive Abbagnales. "I can't imagine how this guy makes them row better," Mike Teti, a 13-year U.S. team rower, says. "He's stuffed in the bow of the boat, he can't see what he's doing—it's the biggest joke in rowing. Every year, this little schmo wins a gold medal."
But the brothers need Di Capua. "He's like a cushion between us and the doctor," says Peppe, referring to La Mura. "When we want to let it all out, we let it out on him." La Mura credits Di Capua with keeping the Abbagnales' moodiness in check, and with an acute knowledge of rowing technique and racing tactics. Besides, La Mura says, "the boys don't have a very good sense of direction."