When Lenny Krayzelburg immigrated to the United States in 1989, he dreamed of a better future. Krayzelburg, a Ukrainian emigre who would go on to become a four-time Olympic gold medalist, found that future at the Westside Jewish Community Center. Despite his broken English and newness to the country, he said JCC members quickly took him under their wing and immediately made him feel like he had found "a second home."
A swimming sensation back in Ukraine, Krayzelburg joined the center's swim team for a couple years, before becoming a lifeguard there. His swimming prowess later took him to USC and the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games. Along the way, the hulking 29-year-old with piercing eyes became a pitchman for Speedo, Pfizer and Kellog's, among other companies. People Magazine named him one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in 2000.
But Krayzelburg never forgot the Westside JCC. He vowed to himself that one day, he would give something back. Krayzelburg recently donated $115,000 to the center to reopen the very pool where the future Olympian once trained. His gift has paid for a just-completed overhaul of the plumbing, filtration and heating systems.
The refurbished pool also will host Krayzelburg's new swim school. He's starting a second location at the JCC in West Hills. "This is for the kids," Krayzelburg said. "I always had a dream that maybe I could have some kind of impact on the swim program at the center."
Krayzelburg has no idea just how big his impact is, said Brian Greene, Westside JCC's executive director. The pool, which opens for lessons July 6, had been closed for three years. Krayzelburg's decision to open his swim school at the JCC not only will benefit members by offering top-flight lessons, but will also burnish the Westside's reputation, Greene added. "This is the pool the Jewish community's been waiting for," Greene said. The pool's overhaul represents the "next piece in the puzzle" in the center's revival, after its near demise in 2002, Westside President Michael Kaminsky said.
The Westside JCC nearly closed forever, after its parent organization, which ran several Southland Jewish centers, experienced a major financial crisis. Under intense public pressure, the parent organization reversed itself and kept the centers open, but not before slashing operating budgets. Several Southland locations, including the Bay Cities JCC and Conejo Valley, later closed.
With money tight, Westside leaders made the painful decision to shutter the pool, where generations of young Jews had played, hung out and learned to swim. The Westside JCC also cut its staff by 50 percent and closed the unprofitable health and fitness center, Kaminsky said.
Despite the setbacks, Westside directors never lost hope, and eventually righted the finances. Now, Kaminsky said, the JCC is in expansion mode, having recently reopened some classrooms to accommodate demand for its preschool and kindergarten programs, while also bulking up other offerings. At the Westside JCC's 50th anniversary party in December, hundreds of supporters, including Krayzelburg, turned out to honor the past and celebrate the future.
More important, the center has raised nearly half of the $14 million needed for an ambitious renovation. In June, the center learned that the Los Angeles City Planning Commission had approved its redevelopment plans. Nobody is as happy about the center's uplifting fortunes as Krayzelburg, who used to train at the JCC four to five times a week, after leaving his old life behind in the former Soviet Union.
Krayzelburg grew up in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. His accountant mother and coffee shop manager father earned enough to provide a comfortable middle-class existence. However, anti-Semitism was a source of much pain for the young Krayzelburg, who was taunted because of his Jewish last name. "It wasn't pleasant," he said. "It hurt. I got into a couple fights because of it."
Coming to the U.S., Krayzelburg experienced a sense of belonging at the Westside JCC. Years later, after becoming a swim sensation, he would reminisce about his time there, and how JCC members had given him support and acceptance at time when he most needed it.
After winning his first three gold medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Krayzelburg said center members, including young children, surprised him by throwing a party in his honor. They feted him like a hero, even though he hadn't been back in over eight years. Krayzelburg said their outpouring touched him, and that he could hardly believe they remembered him.
His connection to the Westside JCC re-established, the following year he held a five-day swim camp there. He decided that one day, he wanted to pursue a joint business venture with the center. But what? Among the ideas Krayzelburg considered and discarded was a wellness center, using the pool for rehabilitative work.
Krayzelburg thinks now is the right time for a swim school -- both professionally and personally. He hopes his name will attract customers to the Westside pool, where staff members trained by him will offer lessons to infants on up. Personally, Krayzelburg is going through several transitions. He may be leaving behind competitive swimming and is about to enter parenthood, with his wife expecting twins.
Krayzelburg said he's glad to mentor young Jews who look up to him and feel proud of their heritage.
"To me, it's special being Jewish," he said. "There's a unique culture, a unique religion. There are so very few of us around the world."