Trying Harder

By Stephen Kiesling William Morrow; $10.95, 200 pp.

OARSMEN LOVE TO talk about crew. put two of them together and you'll hear more about ergs, cadences and seat-racing than you ever wanted to know. So imagine how ecstatic Yale varsity heavyweight crew member Stephen Kiesling felt when during by senior year. Yale named hun a scholar of the House, He had to take no classes fulfill no requirements: his "mission" was to write a thesis on "the philosophy of sports," and incidentally, to train for the 1980 Olympics. Building upon his thesis, Keisling produced The Shell Game, and well its a good thing be made the Olympics team.

Kiesling writes in his preface. "Originally I had hoped to give a perceptive between academics and sports, but I realize that at the time I had no perceptive." This is not hard to believe In fact, throughout the book. Kiesling seems to be trying a little too hard, to prove his intellectualism, as if he were saying. "I did so deserve to get in." He manages to intellectualize the sport as he quotes Freud, Jung, Thorsten Veblen, Werner Jaeger and Aristotle in defense of sweat.

The role of an athlete at the place like Yale or Harvard for that matter--is somewhat paradoxical. As Kiesling observes Yale is full of people who never made peace with athletics In high school an athletics image was worth striving for, but those who come to Yale as athletics find the academic welcome not always warm "In one of the funnier passages n Book. Kresling sees two eminents academic looking upperclassmen on the way to new Haven Imagining a scarlet football emblazoned on my chest. I reached into my pocket for my glasses Comforted by the impressive thickness of my own lenses. I ostentatiously uncovered my course catalog and flipped through the pages."

Kielsing graduated from Yale in 1980 with a degree in philosophy, but his expository style is less than stunningly logical An Expos teacher would surely have flinched at some of his writing I played football my senior year in high school largely because the coaches had stopped asking me to. Then I had to prove that I could." Or his bizarre conclusion to a passage describing the weight-lifting program his crew followed his freshman year "when the Mercury astronauts were chosen the largest part of the training was to desensitize them. The astronauts had to be trained not to touch anything, to endure i sometimes think that is what we were trained to do to endure so much that races became easy by comparison."

The rowing scenes, however, are exciting and meticulously described by that the most interesting and readable portions of the book Kiesling seems to remember every stroke of every race he rowed for four years and makes even non-rowers feel the pain and the adrenaline of a race In particular. The Race, the grueling, four-mile marathon held annually in June between Harvard and Yale's heavy weight crews

In 1979 and 1980 Yale's varsity heavy weight crew won the Eastern Association of Rowing colleges championship--the prestigious Eastern Sprints. And in 1979 and 1980. Yale lost The Race to Harvard as they had since 1963 The stodgiest pre-med in the bowels of Cabot could almost understand how Kielsing felt just before that race in 1979.

I remember losing my shirt last year to the Harvard six man We finished twelve seconds behind and pulled our boats together in fulfillment of tradition. The tradition, however, did not mention what do to if your opponent was unconscious. He the victor, was slumped forward on his die, eyes blank breathing shallowly between convulsions even as the launch arrived to horse him from the shell Each convulsion added to my guilt. He had given all and more than his body could withstand and for that dedication, he had won Four miles, twenty minutes, and an unconscious six man.

AT TIMES, KIESLING'S feeling about crew get even more intense than the Straus Cup finals. Like his nightmare before the 1979 Race: he dreamt that the competition had changed from a crew race into an eight-man duel, starting with the bowmen. One shot each: Each raised his pistol, fired, and disappeared with a clean round hole drilled through his forehead. This is not a normal athletic Tantasy.

For someone who never rowed until his freshman year in college. Kiesling seems to have submerged himself into the crew mindset fairly effortlessly. Even his love life he can't get away from crew. Witness this reminiscence of his first love "Karen and I first met on the dock at the boathouse as the carried her single scull down the gangway "How romantic Kiesling apparently employs the same methods to achieve success in all his activities. "She had loved me for the clarity that marked in all his activities. "She had loved me for the clarity that marked my endeavors, the purposefulness with which I attacked rowing and wooed her "Later, during a race, Kiesling fantasizes about another of his oarsmen girlfriends.

Enraptured by the same vitality we would unite The crashing oars giving way to the crushing of cotton. To explore each other in the moonlight as reflections of sunrise on the river condensed in sinew. In the morning we would return to our crews.

But right now, baby, it's just you, me and the coxswain.

Kresling is admirable, both for his rowing prowess and for his restraint. He refrains from the kind of glazed-eyed, sweaty babbling that too often characterizes books about serious athletic endeavor, maintaining a light, witty tone most of the time. This is not "The Inner Game of Crew," And of course it's fun to read about something so incestuously Ivy League as the Harvard-Yale Race, the oldest intercollegiate athletic competition in America. (Although we wonder if Kiesling is purposely misspelling former Harvard varsity captain Charlie Altekruse's name, having had to give up a Yale shirt to him in 1980.) In the end, though, this book describes on obsession, and if you don't row, it probably won't mean much to you. But if you're a regular at Newell. The shell Game will be more fun than running a hundred stadiums. After all, different strokes for different folks.