Ely Pouget had a solid reason for trekking down last week from her home in the Hollywood Hills to the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC) on Olympic Boulevard. She wanted her twin daughters to take swimming lessons with Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg.
So far, so good -- both for Krayzelburg's new swim school and the community center pool that he paid $115,000 to refurbish.
All told, more than 50 children showed up for the first two days of student evaluations. And why not -- with both a great pool and a great champion starring as the twin attractions?
Krayzelburg already was a local hero, having trained at the Westside JCC before winning four gold medals. But now he's gone a step further, making sure that his old pool can serve generations of future swimmers.
"This is for the kids," said Krayzelburg, 29. "I always had a dream that maybe I could have some kind of impact on the swim program at the center."
His own dreams came to fruition at the center, after Krayzelburg immigrated to the United States from Ukraine with his family in 1989. Despite his broken English and newness to the country, he said JCC members quickly took him under wing and made him feel like he had found "a second home." a
A swimming sensation in Ukraine, Krayzelburg joined the center's swim team for a couple of 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 handsome, hulking athlete with piercing eyes became a pitchman for Speedo, Pfizer and Kellogg, 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, which is located in midcity, near the heavily Jewish Fairfax District. He vowed that one day he would give something back. And that gift turned out to be the pool itself. His donation funded an overhaul of the plumbing, filtration and heating systems.
Krayzelburg has no idea just how big his impact is, said Brian Greene, Westside JCC's executive director. The pool had been closed for three years, so Krayzelburg's donation and his decision to open his swim school at the JCC will do more than offer the prospect of top-flight lessons. The pool's re-opening also will burnish the Westside JCC's reputation, Greene added.
"This is the pool the Jewish community's been waiting for," Greene exclaimed.
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 spruced-up pool smells of fresh, strong chlorine. Freshly painted numbers mark the pool's varied depths, up to 10 feet.
The grand opening -- along with open swimming -- is several weeks away. However, the swim school began last week. Parents even stopped by with 3-month-old babies to inquire about lessons.
Pouget's 5-year-old fraternal twin girls happily splashed about the shallow side pool while getting a swimming evaluation. Rock, a swim school instructor, was impressed enough to high-five both girls.
Another instructor, Molly Martin, a 26-year-old Colorado transplant, said she was surprised to find that despite being next to an ocean, Los Angeles has a relative dearth of public or community swimming pools.
The Westside JCC pool had fallen victim to age, general disrepair and the woes of a financially struggling organization that could not address the problems.
During the hard times, several Southland Jewish community centers closed, including the Bay Cities JCC and the JCC in Conejo Valley. The Westside JCC cut its staff by 50 percent and closed its health and fitness center, including the pool, Kaminsky recounted.
Eventually, the Westside JCC righted its finances, and now, Kaminsky said, the center is in expansion mode, having recently re-opened 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 importantly, the center has raised nearly half the $14 million needed for an ambitious renovation. In June, the center learned that the city Planning Commission had approved its construction plans.
Nobody is happier about the center's improving fortunes than Krayzelburg, who used to train at the JCC four to five times a week.
Krayzelburg grew up in 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 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 United States, Krayzelburg experienced a sense of belonging at the Westside JCC.
Years later, after becoming a U.S. swim sensation, he would reminisce about his time there, and how JCC members had given him support and acceptance at a time when he 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 returned in more than 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, he held a five-day swim camp there the following year. And one day, he decided, he would pursue a joint 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 in his own life. He hopes his name will attract customers to the Westside pool, where staff members trained by him will offer lessons to infants on up. He's starting a second location at the JCC in West Hills.
Personally, Krayzelburg is going through several transitions. He may soon be leaving behind competitive swimming, and he's 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."
Where to Get Wet
The New Jewish Community Center at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. Indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool available after 4 p.m. weekdays for swimming, swimming lessons, "aquarobics" and swim-team events. For more information, call the fitness department: (818) 464-3311 or visit www.jccatmilken.org.
The Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles. Refurbished indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool offers swim instruction through Lenny Krayzelburg Swim School. For information, call (323) 525-0323 or visit www.westsidejcc.org. -- DF
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