Mitt's house, Mitt's rules

PICTURE MITT ROMNEY competing in an amateur triathlon. It's five years ago, and he is on vacation with his family in New Hampshire. He's running the last leg in the final event of what has been dubbed the Romney Olympics. And he's losing -- badly.

He made it through the biking and swimming portions of the triathlon okay, but now he is sweating and heaving, in danger of coming in last place. His sons stand on the sidelines, already finished, mopping sweat from their brows and yelling to their father that he is about to be passed at the wire. Mary Romney, his 23-year-old daughter-in-law who had given birth just eight weeks earlier, is gaining on him. Knowing the taunting he is guaranteed to get because of this, Mitt surges. "He put it into a new gear," says Josh Romney, the third of Romney's five sons. "He did not want to come in last."

Romney lunges across the finish line ahead of Mary. It's an impressive rally, a small victory. For the rest of the day, he is unable to do anything but lie in a lawn chair. Prone, exhausted, chagrined, Romney doesn't move for several hours.

EVER SINCE ENTERING PUBLIC LIFE, Mitt Romney has dealt with what political consultants call a "relatability" problem. He made his fortune in private equity, an area of finance few people outside it understand. He looks 15 years younger than his age, 65, and has an awkward public laugh. As an observant Latter-day Saint, he can never be the guy you'd rather have a beer with; he prefers chocolate milk.

When it comes to sports, Romney has even more trouble fitting in. He is stiff, saying he "enjoys sport," singular, like he is keen for a fox hunt with the local duke and duchess. Some of his more famous gaffes are related to sports. At this year's Daytona 500, he was asked if he followed NASCAR. His response: "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners." In other words, you root for Jeff Burton; Romney roots for the guy who signs Burton's paychecks.

But that doesn't change that Romney is a good sport and recognizes the value of athletics. In fact, he has made sports one of the key ways he bonds with his extended family -- by way of the Romney Olympics. Every July, he and wife Ann, sons Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben and Craig and their families gather together for a one-week vacation at his $8 million estate along Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. It sounds lavish, and it is. But the sheer size of the Romney clan -- 30 in all -- makes the conditions at least somewhat cramped. Wedged into seven bedrooms, the Romneys have their share of jockeying for the choicest sleeping quarters, leading to the unusually middle-class need for inflatable mattresses. "It isn't a totally ideal 100 percent kind of Norman Rockwell painting the whole time," says Tagg, the eldest son.

Except that it is. Family photos of the vacation show women in chic white outfits, and the men are dressed in gingham and khaki. Every day there is waterskiing or Jet Skiing, tennis or basketball, maybe a hike up Mount Major. Every night there are massive family dinners. There are trips to Bailey's Bubble, the local ice cream shack, and many late evenings are spent watching movies. A few nights are dedicated just to conversation and advice, shared among Romney and his boys about careers and life.

The tradition began with Mitt's father, George Romney, who owned a modest cottage along the Ontario side of Lake Huron. George was successful in business (chairman of American Motors) and politics (governor of Michigan). He even had his own campaign for president in 1968. But he was most concerned about his legacy as a family man, and he intended to use his summer place to foster close relationships with his grandchildren. Recreational sports were always a part of the get-togethers.

The practice was handed down to Mitt, and in the 1980s and early '90s, before he made his fortune, he bought a modest vacation spot in Cape Cod, Mass. When his sons reached adulthood and started producing grandchildren, Romney plunked down $2.5 million for the New Hampshire lake house in 1997. And make no mistake, this isn't just a come-as-you-like vacation. This is mandatory. Before Romney's 2008 presidential run, when Tagg was working as a marketing executive for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he told his father he wasn't sure he could fly east in the middle of the season. Tagg recalls his father insisting, "No, you will make it."

For the past six years, Romney has insisted on one other thing: dedicating a day to the Romney Olympics. The games were conceived one day when the boys were throwing a football around the yard and began debating who had the most accurate arm. Sibling rivalry took care of the rest. Eventually, chairs were set up at various distances across the lawn, with each chair assigned a point value. Each family member got 10 throws. "One year we had one brother hit every target, which was unprecedented," says Josh, hesitating for a moment before admitting it was Craig, the youngest, who claims the prized arm in the family.

Other events were added until it became what it is today -- serious, competitive business. Early on in the vacation, the Romneys will spend a morning haggling over which events to include. Push-up competitions were popular in the early years but have since fallen off the radar. A paddleboard race has been discussed repeatedly but hasn't been voted in yet. Overall winners are determined on a points system. First place in an event is worth five points, second is worth three, third is worth two and fourth is worth one. Grandchildren watch, cheering for their fathers and Mitt while jeering their uncles. Sometimes wives participate, but more often they serve as refs, timekeepers and judges. "Mostly they're mocking us," Josh says.

The overall atmosphere of the Romney Games is, officially, a fun, family-bonding experience. Unofficially, it's a day of reckoning. "I think it brings shame to the entire family, their wives and everything," Josh says before a long pause. "I'm kidding, obviously. Mostly."

That kind of teasing is currency in the Romney family, which explains why the dirty little secret these days is that most of the boys are surreptitiously practicing events before the actual games. "Some of us may have spent some time building our push-up strength," Tagg says.

This year's schedule featured races in swimming, biking and running and single-elimination tournaments in tennis, basketball and volleyball. And always, the final event is an endurance arm-hang off a pole that extends across the nearby lake. "It is just pure endurance and agony," says Josh. "Your shoulders feel like they're going to pull out of their sockets." The last one to drop into the water wins.

But no event exemplifies the heated competition of the day like the infamous, now banned, minitriathlon. It consisted of a swim in Lake Winnipesaukee, a breakneck bike race down a high-traffic road into the center of Wolfeboro and a one-mile run. It was Matt's idea. "He is in the best physical condition and was dominating it every year, putting the rest of us to shame," Josh says. "It almost killed us," says Tagg, unfondly. Participants, including Mitt, regularly overdid it and wiped themselves out for the rest of the week. Driven to beat one another, they began cutting off cars on the road, both on bicycle and on foot. There was even an occasional injury. One year, in the rush to move from his bike to the running portion, Tagg hopped off too fast and sprained his ankle. "He went down like a sack of potatoes," says Josh. "We pretended like we felt bad at the time, but we were laughing pretty hard behind his back." The moment is immortalized -- for family eyes only -- on a cellphone video taken by Josh's wife, Jen.

Campaigning for the inclusion of certain events is all part of getting an edge on the competition. A few years ago, Mitt managed to successfully lobby for the addition of a special contest, which the family calls the Lumberjack. The event involves sawing a large wooden post and hammering 10 nails into a board in the fastest time. Mitt has always taken some pride in being handy around the house, and apparently the event is no joke. Josh says the thickness of the post and the dullness of the family handsaw mean your arm is rubber by the time you even get the hammer in your hand. "Dad takes great pleasure in knowing that he can win the Lumberjack," says Josh.

At least, he usually wins. This summer, Mitt bent a nail, and it cost him a repeat victory as the king of the Lumberjack. "If you bend a nail, you have to put in another nail," Josh says solemnly. "It was the first time he was ever beaten in the event, and he was very upset about it." Mitt lost by a quarter of a second. Later that day, his sons spotted him talking to Ann in disappointed wonder. "How did I bend one?" he asked.

The boys report that their father did not make the medal stand this year. "But it was a respectable not-last-place finish," Josh says.

It's phrases like "respectable not last place" that characterize both the teasing and genuine competitiveness of the Romney Olympics. Which is why, in a way, this wild family tradition is actually one of the most relatable things about Mitt Romney. There is something of his character in the games -- the willingness to put himself into the arena, the willingness to submit himself to those moments, even if it makes us cringe. Not great at sports but a great sport nonetheless. "He tries really hard," Tagg says. "He enjoys playing -- even if he doesn't always look pretty doing it."

It almost sounds like a campaign slogan.

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