Neck and neck is a road most traveled for Jake and John Wahl, 17, a somewhat reserved yet affable set of identical twins who are gracious about fielding the typical questions that people ask them.
• Who was born first? John, by 15 seconds.
• How do people tell you apart? There are subtle differences, but the color-coded sneakers help.
• Do you ever swap identities? They've been known to pull a fast one — maybe on a teacher passing back tests so they can be the first to see each other's score.
• Are you competitive? Absolutely.
So much so that more than a few folks were seeing double when John and Jake, of New Port Richey, took the podium to deliver their speeches as salutatorian and valedictorian, respectively, at Tuesday evening's graduation at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High.
"Carbon copies," the older folks might say.
Separated by a mere .03 weighted grade-point average — 4.42 for Jake and 4.39 for John — in a class of 47 graduates.
"They've always been competitive when it comes to school and sports," said classmate Katelyn Butler, 18, an equally driven student who's been dubbed the "third musketeer" since the three met in elementary school.
"They've lived their whole lives that way," said the twins' mom, Debra Wahl.
Even when they were tiny, premature babies, it was a usually a dead heat.
"One would gain a pound, then the other would gain a pound. It was hard to tell them apart," said Mrs. Wahl, who kept their hospital bracelets on as long as she could, then started a habit of dressing John in blue and Jake in red.
The two have been constant classmates through most of their school days, opting for similar paths academically and in sports. Both went out for the high school track team, then opted for cross country. Both played defense on traveling and school soccer teams, where confused teammates and coaches got to calling them "twin" instead of their given names.
Even so, "they are distinct individuals," said world language teacher and longtime family friend Sandra Wesdock.
"They know better than to try (switching identities) on me," Wesdock said, noting nuances she has picked up on — one twin is slightly taller than the other (Jake), and they have slightly different-shaped faces. Jake is more serious; John is more outgoing.
When it comes to goals, they're on the same wavelength.
Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High does not post class rankings until the end of students' senior year, but the Wahl brothers got word last year that they were among five students in the running for class valedictorian.
They decided there would be no slacking off — no senior slump.
"We knew we were close, and that was more of a motivator," Jake said. "It meant you had to keep at it, do your best."
While a tie would have been optimal, the one-two honor has a pretty good feel.
"It would have been bad if one of us didn't get it," Jake said.
The twins plan to follow their two older sisters to Florida State University, fueling a good-natured "house divided — Gator/Seminoles" rivalry with step-siblings who attend the University of Florida.
UF would have been a fine choice, John said, but the honors program at Florida State offered "the best opportunities for research."
Jake and John plan to study biology, with thoughts of going into research or perhaps a pre-med trek, following in the footsteps of their father, Dr. Michael Wahl, a cardiothoracic surgeon.
"We've gone to the hospital for rounds with our dad," Jake said, adding that a field trip to Tampa General Hospital pretty much sealed the deal for their future plans.
While they might find themselves in some of the same classes this fall at FSU, the twins won't be rooming together.
"They don't want that, and I won't allow that," said their mom. "I'm just happy that they can be together in a large school where they have the ability to separate but aren't far from each other, because they really do depend on each other."
And they will continue to push each other, according to John, who laid down the gauntlet during his salutatory speech.
"Yes, I did lose the GPA race to Jake," he said. "I will receive a rematch in college."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.