COLUMBIA — Michelle Dittemore watched from the stands as her sons lined up in the pool for the 50-meter backstroke during the Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games on Saturday.
She could barely tell who was who.
"Right when I cut their hair, it's really hard to tell them apart," Michelle said of her identical twin sons, Charles and Christopher, both 14, who sometimes purposely trick people about their identities.
Both have epilepsy and other intellectual disabilities that don't have official diagnoses. When they were younger and going through more therapy than they do now, the two were practically inseparable.
But when they swim for the Special Olympics, the Dittemore twins aren't always side by side.
As the 50-meter backstroke began, Charles took an early lead and surged ahead of his brother.
Charles is normally faster in each race except the breaststroke. When he discovered his weakness in that race, it really "ticked him off," his mother said.
"They've gotten more competitive over the last year," she said. "It's really cute to watch."
When the twins were younger, Christopher would consult with Charles before answering any question.
Now they speak for themselves.
"It gets old after a while," Charles joked about beating his brother in a race. "Don't tell Christopher I said that."
And Christopher enjoys coming out on top, too.
"Who doesn't?" he said.
Special Olympics allows the twins to differentiate from each other in other ways, too.
"It's a step in the right direction," Michelle said. "It gets them away from the TV and more physically active."
Swimming in Special Olympics has opened doors for the twins, who previously didn't have the confidence to try new activities. Christopher, for example, ran on the track team at Robidoux Middle School in St. Joseph.
He came in last in most events by several minutes, his mother said, but he stuck with it.
"I'd have quit," Michelle said. "He has a whole lot of heart."
Charles and Christopher have also tried tennis, biking, basketball, weightlifting and bocci in addition to swimming. Now in their second year of swimming with Special Olympics, they're branching out to longer races and teaching their mom the sport.
"I like learning new things, too," Michelle said. "We got real lucky."
The twins feel lucky. They love the Special Olympics competitions and what they represent, albeit for very different reasons.
"It's like another Christmas," Charles said.
"I like its unique perspective on civil rights," Christopher added.
"So political," Charles joked back.
They don’t always think the same, and they don’t always perform the same.
But after the 50-meter backstroke, in which Charles finished before Christopher, Charles stepped down from the podium and lifted his brother's hand for a picture.
They smiled identical smiles.
This story was written by one of 11 students participating in the Sports Journalism Institute, hosted by MU. This is the 22nd class for the Institute, designed to provide minority and female students with a start in the sports journalism industry. This is SJI's third year at Missouri.