Just a year ago, the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim School, headed by the four-time Olympic gold medalist, opened with fanfare and big ambitions at the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC), a once lively place that in recent years has been seeking to reinvent itself. Living up to the center's dreams, as of late July, Krayzelburg now has 896 students on his roster.
One is a 7-week old baby boy, Bijoux Kocs, who just had his first private lesson, in line with the school's philosophy that infants are ideal candidates for swim instruction.
"As soon as the umbilical cord is healed, they're ready to go," explains head instructor Molly Martin.
Whatever the age of the student, Krayzelburg's staff aims to teach water safety and athletic skills in friendly, supportive surroundings.
Krayzelburg earned a business degree from USC in 1998, two years before backstroking to stardom at the Sydney Olympics. He founded his Westside JCC swim school -- along with a smaller school at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills -- partly as a business venture. But Krayzelburg also has emotional reasons for making the Westside JCC his headquarters. In 1989, when he and his parents arrived in Los Angeles from Ukraine hoping to put Soviet-style anti-Semitism behind them, the Westside JCC's big 75-foot pool became his home away from home.
By 2001, though, a protracted crisis within the JCCs left the Westside JCC nearly shuttered and its two pools emptied. It was Krayzelburg who came to the rescue, investing $115,000 in a brand-new filtration system and getting the once-dilapidated aquatic center up and running. Now he's a hands-on boss, overseeing the details of his program while still making time for tiny tots in wet swimsuits.
"I really like interacting with kids," Krayzelburg says. "It's great to see kids conquer their fears."
When 6-year-old Noy Shalon became terrified about advancing from the small pool to the bigger one, Krayzelburg was there to talk her through her panic. So was her instructor, who was willing to hug her for 15 minutes at a time while continuing to supervise three more confident classmates. Noy's mother, Sharon Shalon of the Miracle Mile, was so impressed that she's persuaded a friend to drive from Studio City to enroll her own children. Shalon, who also has two other youngsters in the school, stresses that staff members "are very attentive to every child, and they know that child's specific needs."
Some parents are attracted to the Westside JCC program by Krayzelburg's gold-medal reputation. But most stay because they see their children mastering basic skills, one step at a time. Krayzelburg's teachers are trained in the Smart Fish Method, developed by Orange County swim coach Ginny Flahive. Krayzelburg likes this system of colorful cards that are used to reward students for each small advance, because "it's gentle, and it really produces good results."
When Calder Southerland, a 5-year-old from Pico Robertson, first came to the Westside JCC, he had tried two previous swim schools but still wouldn't put his face in the water. A friendly but firm instructor and the incentive of the Smart Fish cards have made all the difference. Mother Deborah, watching her son glide happily through the water, notes that "he gets really excited about achieving the next level."
Other poolside parents are equally enthusiastic. Tanya Heldman drives from West Los Angeles five times a week so her son Raphi, 11, can take part in the school's swim team.
It's a lot of shlepping, admits Heldman, but "it's done such wonders for my son. He lost twelve pounds. His confidence has improved dramatically. I do this out of love."
Enrollment begins Aug. 21 for the Aug. 28 session. For further information, call 323-525-0323 or see www.lennykswim.com.