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Krayzelburg to Defend Record in Athens

by Tom Tugend

July 22, 2004 | 8:00 pm

U.S. swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg speeds through the water in the final of the men's 100 meter backstroke during qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team. Photo by Mike Blake/REUTERS

U.S. swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg speeds through the water in the final of the men's 100 meter backstroke during qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team. Photo by Mike Blake/REUTERS

Swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg will go to the Athens Olympic Games, thanks to placing second in his race during the U.S. qualifying trials, a feat greeted with greater acclaim and emotion than his three gold medals in Sydney four years ago.

The Jewish immigrant from Odessa had the media, 10,000 spectators and even his rivals cheering as he finished the finals of the 100-meter backstroke in 54.06 seconds, behind world champion Aaron Peirsol.

With only the top two in every race assured a berth on the U.S. Olympic team, Krayzelburg beat third place Peter Marshall by four-hundredth of a second.

When the results were announced, Krayzelburg's father Oleg, who brought his family to the United States in 1989, triumphantly waved a tambourine, while the stadium in Long Beach erupted into a noisy celebration.

To qualify, Krayzelburg had to overcome a series of handicaps that would have stopped a less-determined competitor.

For one, he is close to 29, considered ancient in a sport mostly dominated by teenagers. Even worse, he wasn't sure whether he had fully recovered from a knee surgery and two shoulder operations.

A product of the intense Soviet training system for promising young athletes, Krayzelburg had difficult realizing his potential after his parents decided to leave Odessa for Los Angeles to escape Soviet anti-Semitism and the prospect that their only son would be drafted into the army.

The 14-year-old newcomer enrolled at Fairfax High School, which had no swimming team, and even taking a job at the Westside Jewish Community Center allowed him little chance for professional practice.

Ultimately, a swimming coach at Santa Monica College rediscovered Krayzelburg's talent, got him a scholarship at the University of Southern California, and his career took off.

Although he has had no Jewish education and attends synagogue only on Yom Kippur, Krayzelburg is conscious of his roots, telling reporters: "Being Jewish is part of me, it's part of my culture."

After setting Olympic records in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke, and spurring the U.S. 4x100-meter medley relay team to a world record at the 2000 Games, Krayzelburg participated the following year at the Maccabiah in Israel, proudly carrying the Stars and Stripes into the stadium.

Standing 6-foot-2, with blond hair, blue eyes and a sculpted body, Krayzelburg has been a crowd favorite as much for his modest behavior as his good looks.

Following his feat last week, he easily stole the headlines from America's current swimming sensations, Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin.

Also on hand at the stadium was a graying but fit Mark Spitz, who won a never-equaled seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics swimming competition.

Phelps, the new American hope, is aiming to equal, or even surpass, Spitz's record and, on Saturday, the 54-year-old Spitz symbolically passed the torch after the 19-year-old Phelps won his third gold of the trials in the 200-meter butterfly.

Spitz put the medal around Phelps's neck on the victory stand, then raised the young swimmer's arm in a victory salute, after promising to be in the stands in Athens to cheer on Phelps's assault on his own 1972 record.

Also heading for Athens is another top Jewish swimmer, Jason Lezak of Irvine, who won the 100-meter freestyle on Sunday, after setting a new American record of 48.17 seconds a day earlier in the semifinals.

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