PHILADELPHIA -- Since 1964, only two American men, Brad Alan Lewis and Paul Enquist, have won Olympic gold medals in rowing. They did it together in a slender double scull, overcoming daunting odds and official disfavor just to make the U.S. team.

Their unlikely triumph came on Aug. 5, 1984, by 1 1/2 seconds over Belgium at the Los Angeles Games, the meet that launched Mary Lou Retton, Carl Lewis and Greg Louganis to fame and fortune.

Brad Lewis and Enquist were not similarly blessed. Enquist went home afterward to Seattle to net salmon with his father, where he remains. Native Californian Lewis stayed home and within days was back surfing anonymously with the crowd at the mouth of Salt Creek.

But Lewis, a man of deep thought -- sometimes painfully deep -- had a job to do. He wanted to write a book about his quest, which because of its intensely personal nature was no mean task. He spent five years writing and rewriting it, then twisted in the wind as one major publisher after another rejected it.

His 177-page "Assault on Lake Casitas" (where L.A.'s Olympic rowing events were held) finally came out last month in paperback, the product of a tiny Philadelphia publisher, Broad Street Books. To help sell it, Lewis flew in from California and manned a table at the Head of the Schuylkill regatta here last weekend, signing the copies young rowers lined up to buy.

"Assault," an extraordinary book that exposes with dental-drill precision the raw-nerve pain and sacrifice at the heart of the greatest quest in amateur sport, will not be a bestseller. It lacks the requisite backing of a big publisher, for reasons only big publishers know.

But Lewis, 35, says he really doesn't care. The objective was the same as the one on which he spent seven years in pursuit of Olympic gold: "Do it right and finish it." That objective has been met.

To anyone interested in the savage intricacies of Olympic competition -- the poisonous politics, haunting self-doubt, dirty scheming by pompous overlords, the quagmire of decision-making when there is no one to trust or blame but yourself, "Assault" ought to be required reading.

I read it because I knew Lewis, having met him when he was a crewman aboard USA, the second-best U.S. sailboat at the 1986-87 America's Cup in Australia. He wrote a fine, funny book about that experience called, "Confessions of a Grinder."

But all the time he was in Perth and for two years before and two years after, he was quietly grinding away at his first love, the saga of Olympic triumph, stripping away at level after level of anger, frustration and confusion until only an unadorned jewel of a victory tale remained.

"Assault," to my delighted surprise, was a smooth prose-poem of unvarnished fact and perception, swept along by piercing, from-the-cockpit views of the power and pain of world-class rowing. I couldn't put it down, and read 28 chapters the first night.

How does it feel to row for the gold?

"Last 500," writes Lewis. "We move past the Yugoslavs into second place behind Belgium. To hell with the silver medal. I don't want the silver. I want to end my torture. Then I can be free. I will do it here, now, in this moment, with these strokes, with the strength of my body, with the strength of my soul.

"Dig in. The pain is so bad I can't even allow my body to acknowledge it. Good place to die, beautiful place. Make the puddles sing, torque the blades, feel the grips like extensions of your arms, feel the connection between our souls and the speed of the boat . . . "

But we're getting ahead of the story. "Assault" is more a reflection on the tortuous voyage to that crowning moment, a trip through the netherworld of elite amateur sport.

To get to the Games, Lewis spent years honing his skill as a solo sculler, only to have his quest end abruptly in the single scull trials when he lost the final by a margin so slim his personal coach thought he had won.

With only one solo boat eligible to go to the Games, Lewis had to scramble for a spot on the two other U.S. men's sculling entries, the two-man and four-man boats. That put him in a six-week torture camp headed by the modern guru of amateur rowing, Harvard Coach Harry Parker, who had no love for Lewis and his aloof, West Coast style.

The book is largely about Lewis's losing battle with the so-called "St. Grottlesex crowd," the preppy rowers who came through finishing schools like St. Paul's, Groton and Middlesex to such Ivy League rowing bastions as Harvard and Princeton.

Parker had his favorites among these fellows and Lewis, a lanky, swarthy product of Pacific Coast public schools and the University of California at Irvine, was not among them. Not that he wanted to be.

"It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," he said, "than for a rich man's son to win the Olympics."

The acrimony between Parker and Lewis is richly explored in "Assault," concluding with Lewis's abandonment of Parker's camp to pursue his Olympic quest alone with Enquist.

The ghosts they battle along the way to triumph come to life in the book, so that by the time Olympic officials call out the starting sequence in French at Lake Casitas, you are all but in the boat, and can feel the sweat popping from the blisters on your hands.

Indeed, six years after his win, Lewis still has the horn-hard hands of an Olympic sculler. "From rowing?" I asked.

No, he said, the blisters were from his latest part-time job. He and his friend, Gabriella Goldstein, haul the weighty makings of a hot-air balloon onto the roofs of Southern California businesses on weekends, then inflate the bogus balloons to attract trade.

"It's stupid work," he said, "but it keeps me free to surf during the week and I can write every day."

Which is good, because there are lessons to learn from books like "Assault," and Lewis clearly is willing to take the time and effort to make them shine like gold. He has climbed that mountain before, after all.

"Assault on Lake Casitas," 177 pages, $11.95, is available from Broad Street Books, P.O. Box 41075, Philadelphia 19127.