Brown sophomore Xeno Müller, the top oarsman on the nation's top collegiate crew, is fond of telling folks how well his name suits him. The prefix xeno, taken from Greek, means foreign—which is what Müller has been for most of his life. Before his ninth birthday, in fact, Müller had lived in Spain and Germany as well as in his native Switzerland. Then his father, a salesman, finally settled the family in Fontainebleau, near Paris. "Growing up I always felt like an outsider," says Müller. "It was really difficult to make friends."
Not that he didn't try. As a seventh-grader Müller developed a heavy crush on one of his classmates. Unfortunately the girl was more interested in a boy several years older than Müller. "He had muscles and I didn't," says Müller.
To convert his rather ample beef to buff, Müller joined a rowing club and soon became one of the top junior scullers in Europe. He preferred to do most of his training alone. After school he would row in the murky Seine while navigating between hulking barges. Then he would retreat to his family's basement to lift weights until nearly midnight.
Shortly after finishing a disappointing ninth in the single sculls at the 1989 junior world championships in Szeged, Hungary, Müller was approached at his hotel by Brown's freshman crew coach, Val Ferme. Midler's oil-drum-sized thighs had caught Ferme's eye. "Xeno's quads aren't hard to notice," says Brown senior Gus Koven. "He likes to hike up his shorts and parade them around."
Eventually Ferme sold Müller on the virtues of a Brown education. In Providence, Müller was a foreigner yet again, but this time his skill as an oarsman won him acceptance. Last year he helped lead the Bears' freshman eight to an undefeated season. "The whole idea of depending on seven other people is still new to Xeno," says Brown coach Steve Gladstone. "But he's adapting well."
Last June, only six days after completing his freshman season, Müller hopped back into his single scull and rowed to a fourth-place finish at a World Cup event in Lucerne. A month and a half later, at the Barcelona Olympics, he missed the single-scull finals by only .85 of a second. "That race just inspired me for '96," says Müller.
Now back at school, he sticks to a rigorous training routine. In the early mornings he rows his single on the Seekonk River, and in the afternoons he settles into the four-seat of Brown's varsity eight. Last Saturday that eight trounced defending national champion Harvard by 10 seconds in the Stein Cup on Boston's Charles River.
Müller finally feels he belongs. He has even filled his closets with such U.S. student staples as Gap jeans and steel-toed Doc Martens. Still, there is one thing that Müller doesn't understand. "These American kids," he says, "have you seen how much beer they drink?"
A single-sculler from Switzerland is carrying the nation's best collegiate crew on his shoulders.