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Stroke of Luck Emigrating from the Soviet Union was one of the best things that ever happened to backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg, the U.S.'s best hope for swimming gold at the Sydney Games

Aug. 21, 2000
Aug. 21, 2000

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Aug. 21, 2000

Stroke of Luck Emigrating from the Soviet Union was one of the best things that ever happened to backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg, the U.S.'s best hope for swimming gold at the Sydney Games

He lived in West Hollywood in the shadow of Sunset Strip,
probably the most dream-filled stretch of real estate in his
new, dream-filled land. He could see the billboards on top of
the buildings every day, the pictures of the movie stars and
recording artists smiling down on the luxury cars that purred
past, money on parade. He was surrounded by the colors, the
noise, the flash and the folly of the commercial opportunities
available in the United States.

This is an article from the Aug. 21, 2000 issue Original Layout

The irony wasn't lost on Lenny Krayzelburg, child of the Soviet
Union. Why was his piece of this grand picture missing? If there
was something for everyone, why was there nothing for him? He
would be better off back in Odessa, back in Ukraine. "I knew what
it took to be a world-class swimmer, because I'd been in a
program to develop world-class swimmers," he says now, 24 years
old, the prime U.S. male hope for swimming gold medals in Sydney,
the world-record holder in both the 100- and 200-meter
backstrokes. "I knew I wasn't getting that here. No matter what I
did on my own, I knew I didn't have a chance."

When he arrived in the U.S., in 1989, with his parents, Oleg and
Yelena, and his younger sister, Marsha, he was a 13-year-old
fish-out-of-chlorinated-water. He didn't have a good place to
swim, didn't have a coach, didn't have a swimming future. How
could this have been? His life since he'd been six had centered
around a pool. Oleg, who worked as a coffee-shop manager in the
U.S.S.R., had enrolled Lenny in a class at the Army Sports Club
in Odessa, just something to do until the boy was a year older,
ready for soccer. That was the start. The coaches spotted a
talent for the backstroke and nurtured it.

When he was put into a special school for swimmers at age nine,
he practiced for 5 1/2 hours every day. There were 25- and
50-meter pools at the school. There was a two-story building
with locker rooms and classrooms. There were weights,
instruction, coaches always on the pool deck. Want to be a
champion? That was how to become a champion.

"When we got here, one of the first things my father did was
enroll me with the Team Santa Monica swim club," Krayzelburg
says. "It was a good program, but it was too far away. We didn't
own a car, so I had to take a bus for 45 minutes and then walk
eight blocks. I was going to school, I was working an
after-school job to help out the family, I was studying English.
It was all too much."

Lenny wanted to quit the sport. Oleg wouldn't listen. Swimming
was important. Why had Oleg packed five bags and left everything
else behind when the doors at last were opened for Jewish
families to emigrate from the U.S.S.R? He had done it for his
children. Swimming was going to be Lenny's ticket to acceptance,
success. Wasn't America the home of Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi?

The answer was the Westside Jewish Community Center. It had an
old 25-yard pool, far from Olympic standards, but it was close to
where the Krayzelburgs were living. It had a swim team, though
not a serious training program. Lenny could practice on his own,
compete with the team. There was no swim team at his high school,
Fairfax, a basketball factory that had sent Chris Mills and Sean
Higgins toward NBA careers, so the Westside JCC became Lenny's
sole base for swimming. He even wound up with a lifeguard job
there, so he was at the center for much of his day.

"It was good for me because it forced me to learn English," he
says. "In school there were a lot of other Russian kids, so we
always could talk among ourselves. But at the center no one spoke
Russian. I had to learn English. For swimming, though, no matter
what I did, I knew I wasn't making enough progress. I knew what
those kids were doing in Odessa. I wasn't doing that here."

Would he never grow, never develop? That was a real possibility.
His gift might have been left behind with the family's other
possessions.

"So this kid shows up one day and says he'd like to work out
with our team," says Stu Blumkin, who was the swim coach at
Santa Monica City College in 1993. "He's in his senior year at
Fairfax, and I say, 'Fairfax doesn't have a swimming team.' And
he says, 'That's right.' I was skeptical. There aren't many kids
who just show up who can swim fast."

The child of the Soviet Union was now 17. He could speak English.
He had a car. The family had moved out of West Hollywood to
Studio City. He had sent out letters to four-year colleges,
looking for a scholarship, but without a boxful of blue ribbons
and medals, he didn't have much of a resume. Not one college was
interested.

"What can you do for the 100-yard back?" Blumkin asked.

"Fifty-five seconds," Krayzelburg said.

"Let's see."

The potential was obvious in that first workout. Blumkin arranged
for Krayzelburg, as a high school student, to practice with the
team. He was a revelation.

"He was just that kid who worked harder than everyone else,"
Blumkin says. "Anything you told him to do, he did it. He was the
first one here, last to leave. He thrived on work. The more I
watched him, the more I thought, This kid's potential is
unlimited."

In the fall Krayzelburg enrolled at Santa Monica City College
and played water polo. In the winter he became Blumkin's best
swimmer on a team with some very good swimmers. He set a
national junior college record for the 200-yard backstroke. By
the spring Blumkin was getting ready to let him go. There were
limits to a junior college program, limits in facilities and
competition, and Blumkin knew Krayzelburg would be better off in
a big-time environment. UCLA would have been the first choice,
but the Bruins had recently dropped men's swimming. Southern Cal
was an easy second choice. Blumkin contacted Trojans coach Mark
Schubert. "In all the time I've been coaching, this might have
been the most unselfish act I've ever seen," Schubert says.
"Lenny had another year of eligibility at Santa Monica, but Stu
was looking for what was best for him."

Schubert, too, was skeptical at the beginning. Potential world
champions don't just show up. Of all sports, swimming is the most
measured, timed, predictable. There aren't supposed be surprises.
Yet here was a big surprise. Schubert, too, became a fast
convert. He offered a scholarship.

"This was a totally different level of competition for me,"
Krayzelburg says. "When I showed up, I was the fifth-fastest
backstroker on the team. I wasn't eligible for my first year, so
I only could swim in the little, 25-meter pool every day, while
the team practiced in the big pool. That was my pool, the little
pool."

By the time he had finished his sophomore season, in the spring
of 1996, he was on a fast rise. He went to the U.S. Olympic
Trials in Indianapolis that March and caused a great stir when he
had the second-best time in the 200-meter heats. Krayzelburg?
From USC? There wasn't even a thumbnail biography of him in the
meet's voluminous press materials.

Even Krayzelburg was surprised. The top two swimmers in the final
would qualify for Atlanta. He was in a position to make it. His
head buzzed with the unexpected thought. Was he ready for this?

His body was. His mind wasn't. Starting too fast, trying to do
too much, Krayzelburg finished fifth in the final. If he'd simply
repeated his morning time, he'd have made the team. He was left
home. Trojans teammate Brad Bridgewater went to Atlanta and
became the Olympic champion. "I called Lenny from Atlanta the
night Brad won the 200," says Schubert, who will coach the U.S.
men's team in Sydney. "I told him, four years from now that could
be him."

"The crazy thing is that it could have been him in Atlanta,"
Blumkin says. "The trials were such a breakthrough for him, and
he just kept improving after that. By the time the Olympics were
held, he was the fastest backstroker in the world, but he wasn't
in the meet."

The growth has continued. In 1998, Krayzelburg won golds in both
the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the world championships, in Perth.
Last year in Sydney, in the pool where the Games' swimming events
will be held, he broke world records in the 100 and 200, one
after another. At the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in
Indianapolis, he made the team in the 100 backstroke last Friday
and the 200 on Monday, winning the final in each event. Without
having swum an Olympic race, Krayzelburg has become the U.S.'s
most recognizable male swimmer, signed to a six-figure Speedo
endorsement contract and featured in seemingly all USA Swimming
promotions.

"Two years ago I went back to Odessa with my parents and my
sister," Lenny says. "I went to the pool...the place where I
started to swim. It was very sad. The building was vacant. The
pool was now a dump. It was filled with garbage."

What would have happened if the Krayzelburgs hadn't moved? Their
native land changed. The emphasis on sports diminished. Would he
still have wound up where he is? Would his determination, his
hard work, have triumphed in that situation too? Hard to say.

"I didn't see any of the other swimmers from when I was in
school, but I did see some other friends," he says. "I found that
it was very hard to have a conversation with them. They were in a
different place from me. They were out, working. They hadn't gone
to school. They were married; most of them had children. For me,
right now, marriage? It would be like walking on the moon, the
idea of me being married. I am too busy."

He says he thinks he will some day marry a Russian woman, that an
American woman probably wouldn't understand the life he wants.
He's still very much Russian. He speaks the language every day
with his family, with friends. He wants his future family to
resemble his present family. He says he owes everything to his
father and mother. His father is a cook at a hospital. His mother
is a technician in the pharmacy at a hospital. "It would still be
best for my father and my mother to be back in Odessa,"
Krayzelburg says. "That is where they would be happier. That's
where their friends are. They came here for my sister and me. To
give us the opportunity."

Krayzelburg speaks easily in English, no trace of an accent. His
father speaks little English, his mother a bit more. Cutting
across the campus at USC, where he still trains, the child of the
Soviet Union stops often to talk with friends, students and
teammates. He talks about the Lakers, the Dodgers, whatever. He
talks about the NASDAQ. His degree is in finance.

"So, do you think I look Russian?" he suddenly asks.

His hair is blond. His eyes are blue. He could be featured on one
of those Soviet posters of the Cold War, staring ahead toward the
end of the latest five-year plan. Yes, he looks Russian. Very
Russian.

"Oh," he says, "most people are surprised when they hear I'm from
Odessa. They think I'm Californian."

Well, his hair is blond. His eyes are blue. He could be standing
next to an SUV with a surfboard and a smile, wearing a Hawaiian
shirt and baggy shorts. Yes, he looks Californian. Very
Californian.

He's both. That is the beauty of his success. Of all the stories
that will be spun from now until the end of the Sydney Games, his
is one of the oldest and best success-story stories: the
immigrant who has come to a new land and worked hard and overcome
obstacles and found exactly what he hoped to find. The American
dream.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY The Wet Look Joshua Boss, 20, could use gills as he comes up for air in the 200-meter breaststroke prelims at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials (page 44). [Leading Off]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILLCOLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Clawing ahead One of Bedford's garish fingernails broke in her 100-meter prelim, adding to her anxiety before the final.COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL O'NEILL Happy landing Krayzelburg, practicing his start in L.A., would have inferior facilities and coaching today if he'd stayed in Odessa.
Without having swum an Olympic race, he has become the U.S.'s most recognizable swimmer.