row2k Features
Book Review: Phil Stekl's 'The Wondrous Sport of Rowing'
January 27, 2021
Oli Rosenbladt, row2k

As we've already seen, 2020 was a banner year for rowing books (examples here, here and here). With rowing dormant for much of last year, at least in the States, the void was filled with stories of transformation and triumph, athletic achievement and personal growth. And while all of these books definitely showcased rowing as a sport, only a few of them touched on rowing as an idea.

This gap is now filled with the arrival of Phil Stekl's coffee table book "The Wondrous Sport of Rowing." A slim, oversize volume of verse and photography, Stekl's book clearly means to remind us of all of the things we love about rowing, the deep pull of gliding along on the water.

The book defies easy description; you could call it a poetry book, a photography book, a work of whimsy--whatever word you use, you'd be right. The photos, beautifully showcased in the book's oversize format, span rowing details from competition to landscapes (and even include some in the style of Walter Wick's "I Spy" series). The accompanying verse ranges from lighthearted to deep, and touches on the rowing themes of nature, mystery, and a host of others.

It's great fun; accompanying a two page spread of a group of Junior Boys racing past a very clearly naked group of sunbathers, Stekl pairs the photo with this verse:

"Junior only to the codes that keep one afloat
Is the cardinal rule in rowing matters cutthroat
Exhorted by all seasoned coaches, and I quote:
'No matter what, Scout, keep your eyes in the boat!'"

Stekl is not a newbie to any of this; a member of the 1980 and 1984 US Olympic teams, Stekl has truly spent decades watching the sport, and after retiring to Austria after a long financial career in the US, he's clearly enjoying himself. Nor is Stekl a novice photographer, and some of his images are stunning (one, which I won't spoil here, involves a single sculler and a swan in a way very few people, if any, have ever experienced). His new surroundings in Austria certainly don't hurt his cause (or the backgrounds of his pictures, whew), but Stekl would certainly be capable of producing these fine views from anywhere.

As Stekl's former USA teammate John Chatzky states in the book's introduction, "we train, we compete, we race and we are all driven by a desire to excel and to win but we are equally thrilled by the beauty of the motion, the sounds we experience together, the joy of the run of the shell beneath us and the wonders that surround us. All of this has been captured in this book."

51% of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Kafue River & Watershed Center in Zambia, a cooperative effort between WorldRowing and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

As light as Stekl's book is, after a year where a whole lot of folks did not get to row as much as they might have liked, this might be the book that all folks who truly love rowing need at this juncture.

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01/30/2021  3:34:56 PM
1 people like this
I have the book, $37.50, two days for free delivery to get it to me, and boy am I proud to have it. It's wonderful or should I say "wondrous!" The first thing I noticed on the back cover was that my friend Phil's father was Bill Stekl not Phil Sr. but that's the sort of thing that can happen when you're 81 years old and gazing 60 years into the past. par. In the also 1X1 coffee table book FOUR YEARS AT FOUR that Phil Makanna and I just made we thought we ought to depict one crab. But on pages 17 and 18 of WONDROUS there are 14 crabs. There is an abundance of everything. There is nothing in the world like enthusiasm but particularly when it's for rowing. par. What about Stekl's experience at Olympic and World Class level? Or at Middletown High, a fledgling program? Nothing. par. Phil Stekl in this book steers shy of wins and losses. He's interested in the cthonic, the underworld, the earth and Stygian water that holds the sculls and sweeps. par. The above review points to a huge swan taking off from the Danube at Linz. Yes!!! But I point to the five Brown-winged geese at the Head of the Charles whose glide makes that of Harvard off to the right look paltry as well it should. par. I point also at the quote from Starbuck in MOBY DICK and to the indisputable fact, speaking as the English teacher I am, that Stekl's own verse throughout the book is FIRST RATE. There's great from-boat peeing and nudity, too, and faces of rowing Frauen hard to beat. I know for a fact that Bill Stekl is proud. par. Bill Stekl gave me my start in journalism. At the end of my first week at the Middletown Press he and I walked up the hill to Wesleyan to cover a forum on political cartoons. Headline for the tall picture next day on the oversize front page was WE BEGIN TO LAUGH AT OURSELVES. Jules Feiffer, Bill Mauldin and Art Buchwald all had their drinks down by the waist. But I, John Escher-- he had his drink up by his ear.

03/02/2021  2:26:34 AM
Hi John- Phil Stekl here. Many thanks for supporting the book - and in such a knowledgable way. Not everyone gets the Moby Dick connection. I read with even greater appreciation about your connection to my dad. If you would like to reach out further, send me a “hey Phil” at [email protected]. Warm Regards, Phil

01/27/2021  6:40:31 PM
1 people like this
Stekl's dad was Phil Stekl too, and he was THE photographer for a daily newspaper, The Middletown Press in Connecticut. par. And he was huge. Every time I looked at him I wanted to put him in a boat. par. The other reporters knew how to take a picture. Not me. So Phil went with me. Result: my stories had the best photography. par. You may be surprised where this is going next. After spending plenty of time in Austria I went around the world. When I circled all the way to Middletown, Phil Stekl chewed me out for not taking a single photo. par. Flash forward 60 years. Phil Makanna, two on my crew and foremost in the world photographer of vintage airplanes, convinced me to write a coffee table book called FOUR YEARS AT FOUR. The members of the Brown Cinderella Crew all have a copy. Here's a link.  par. The book will either have a reasonable price and go commercial or it will not.

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