It's okay to lose, Navy's wrestling coach, Ed Peery, sometimes will say to a Midshipman who has just been mauled. That the sermon often seems to fail troubles Peery, although he is not surprised. As a youngster, he never bought it, either.

"There's no defeat probably like one you take in wrestling," he said. "It shouldn't be that way, and I often tell kids: 'This is not the ultimate thing in life.' But a guy takes a physical beating in a one-on-one encounter really hard. I had difficulty coping with it each time I ever lost. Unbelievable trouble.

"I lost twice."

That's two times in his entire competitive life. Once in 70-some high school matches and once while winning three NCAA 123-pound titles at Pitt in the mid-50s. Even now, trim and with a cocksure manner and voice that seems as though it ought to be in a larger body, the young hellion Peery on the mats is easy to imagine.

He had to be. Few athletic pressures were greater than his, for that extraordinary business of winning back-to-back-to-back collegiate championships was almost expected. It ran in the family, everybody said. Father Rex, his coach at Pitt, won three NCAA titles; older brother Hugh won three NCAA titles.

And after victory in the NCAAs his first two years, the proper ending was all but assumed when Ed stepped onto the mat for his third final. Somebody forgot to tell his opponent, Harmon Leslie.

Leslie was the antithesis of Peery, lean and fast, a greyhound battling a bulldog--and scoring the upset of the ages for two periods. You could run a lot more in those days, but Peery finally caught Leslie, scored four points in the third period to tie the match and won a referee's decision after overtime.

And quit.

"Walked off that mat and said: 'That's it. I don't want any more of this. That's it for me.' "

He sometimes considers what losing to Leslie might have done:

"Who knows? I might have been an Olympic champion if I'd lost that match. (Dan) Gable lost his (only) match (in the NCAA finals his senior year), and he stayed in it. Kept him hungry. Course, I was married and had two kids then. But maybe if I'd walked off that mat a loser, I might have felt I had something to prove."

Amateur wrestlers are the masochists of sport. No athlete punishes himself more for less glory, and an intense seven-minute match (periods of three, two and two minutes) is more draining than 60 minutes of football. Or 36 innings of baseball.

Until Navy beckoned 22 years ago, Peery was committed to engineering. He admires the few men who, like himself, have been able to survive in a game whose major rewards are intangible. He can be gruff and gentle, devilish and sassy during what he calls mental "knife cutters" with his good friend, Myron Roderick.

Peery's passion now is racquetball, and one of the academy joys is to match him with an unsuspecting, self-proclaimed ace. Yeah, we've got a guy who plays a bit, they say. Then they introduce the pigeon to Peery, and watch him get plucked.

Lately, racquetball has aggravated some old wrestling wounds.

An Achilles' tendon snapped on the court; his right shoulder had to be repaired through surgery not long ago. Both knees had been snipped and sewed years ago. His right ear lets you know Peery was not always riding high on the mat.

"Never got killed," he said of those two defeats that still bother him. He laughs and adds: "Course, I never won big, either."

Peery gets immense satisfaction from his work, knowing who to bully and who to coax and to what degree. His Navy teams have been best in the East five times; his men have won 37 individual Eastern titles.

But his mind often is occupied by the fourth wrestling Peery, the one who would have brought even greater glory to the family but who could not quite cope with his sport at the highest level.

That is his son, Greg.

"He was a super wrestler," Peery said. "Right on the edge of doin' it. Went to Oklahoma State. Unusual gifts. Very strong; very fast; super knowledge; unusual sense of balance. But, you had to push him all the time . . .

"He made their team as a freshman, started for them. He won a match, lost a match, won a match, then ran into a superstar and lost to him, and another superstar and lost to him. As a freshman. Wrestling guys who are postgraduate students. Lost to them, and I think it broke his back."

Greg left school after one year. He's back home now, been married about eight months and working as a management trainee for a lumber firm. As with some others of us, hard work might drive him back to college, Ed senses. But serious wrestling probably is over.

For the elder Peery, Saturday is one of the season's highlights: the annual meeting with Lehigh. What Notre Dame is to football, Lehigh is to Eastern wrestling. Fans flock by the hundreds to meets two time zones away. Have ever since a character named Billy Sheridan made wrestling big-time there seven decades ago.

Like the Irish in football, Lehigh is ordinary at the moment, 5-5-1 and very likely to experience its first nonwinning season in 30 years. Ah, but the memories. One of the tales passed from one wrestling generation to the next concerns a gym completed in 1941.

As a cathedral for holy wrestling, Grace Hall was not quite right, and in the fury that followed, the school's president departed. Poor fellow never got a hold on Lehigh's priorities.