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Jewish Journal

Swimming Star

by Jason Levin

June 10, 1999 | 8:00 pm

When the Olympic swimmers hit the pool in the summer of 2000 in Sydney, it will represent the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice. Few will have worked harder, or sacrificed more, than America's top backstroker, Lenny Krayzelburg. The 23-year-old American record holder in the 200-meter backstroke was born in Odessa, in the Ukraine. He and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1989, with Lenny gaining U.S. citizenship in 1995. "My parents felt my sister and I would have more opportunity in America, that leaving Russia would give us a chance to follow our dreams," said the 6'2", 190-pound Krayzelburg, adding with a smile, "My dream since I was 5 or 6 was to win an Olympic gold medal."

Settling in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, Lenny, then 13, found himself attending public school and swimming only four days a week. "In Russia, I trained four to five hours a day since I was 8, so it was different here." The Krayzelburg family had little money, but were comforted by the kinship of other émigrés familiar with their journey and struggle. Lenny's father found work as a cook, and his mother as a pharmaceutical technician. When Lenny met coach Stu Blumkin at Santa Monica College, his swimming career took off. He broke the national junior college record in the 200-meter backstroke in 1995, but gives a great deal of the credit to Blumkin. "Even having swam for 14 years, I was pretty ignorant about some things," he admitted, adding, "Pacing, racing, developing a consistent workout pattern, these were all things Stu worked with me on." Krayzelburg earned a full scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he found himself surrounded by the best bodies and minds in swimming, "Mark Schubert was the coach, and Brad Bridgewater [the 1996 gold medalist in the event] was my teammate," he remembered. Again, Krayzelburg improved by leaps and bounds. "I won the NCAA 200 in 1997, then I beat Brad at the Pan-Pacific Games and set the American record," he recalled, adding, "All of that happened after Mark told me he thought I could be the best in the world, which was just an amazing thing for me to hear, and drove me to work harder than I ever had before."

Hard work, and the satisfaction and rewards that it brings are constants in the Krayzelburg family. "My parents sacrificed everything for my sister and I, never complained, and I will never forget that," he stated firmly. He cites sports icons Michael Jordan and Cal Ripken Jr. as examples of athletes he admires and looks on as role models. "I especially admire Michael Jordan because after becoming the best in the world he worked even harder, and Cal Ripken because he never missed a day for all those years." Krayzelburg's 10 workouts a week, and his attitude towards them, indicate he's on track to duplicate the success of those two Hall of Fame athletes. "Sometimes you don't want to wake up at 5 a.m. and go to practice, but if you want to be the best, you just don't have a choice."

When not working out, Krayzelburg, who recently graduated from USC with a degree in finance, spends time with two radically different sets of friends. "I have a lot of swimming friends, but I have my Jewish friends too, some whom I met here, and others who came over from Russia just like I did." Krayzelburg, who played soccer in Russia, loves both baseball and basketball, and his adopted teams, the Dodgers and Lakers. "I love basketball but I can't play now and risk an injury, so I just have to watch." Krayzelburg is acutely aware of how important staying injury-free is, having suffered a stress fracture in his back that forced him to cease all physical activity for three weeks this January. Amazingly, he came back better than ever, breaking his own American record in winning the 200. "After I went 1:56.95 and broke my American record, Mark and I just looked at each other and didn't know what to say," he said with a smile. Krayzelburg prepared far less than usual for the competition, and raced unshaven, two factors that have increased his belief that the world record of 1:56.57 set by Martin Zubero of Spain will be his before long. "I never talked about breaking the world record before, but with how I'm training now and what happened at nationals, it's just a matter of setting another personal record and the world record will fall."

Krayzelburg has been ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 for two and a half years, but only in the last year has he broken through in the 100, where he's currently ranked No. 2. He still considers himself more proficient at the longer distance, but going for the double in Sydney is his plan. "If I swim my best and someone swims faster, I can't control that," he said, before adding, "The way I feel now, I don't think anyone can beat me."

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