Millions of immigrants have flocked to the United States looking for streets paved with gold. Lenny Krayzelburg, who came to Los Angeles from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1988 is searching for gold as well - but in a pool at Sydney's Olympic Games.
Several Jewish athletes from the former Soviet Union are competing for Israel in this year's Games, which begin today, but the one competing for the United States - Krayzelburg - appears to be the one most likely to win.
"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 lb. Krayzelburg, adding with a smile, "My dream since I was 5 or 6 was to win an Olympic gold medal."
Krayzelburg, who will compete in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, was identified as a possible world-class athlete in his native Soviet Union before he was 10.
This identification entitled him to attend a school with 44 other swimmers who went to classes and swam together 12 hours a day.
"A lot of who I am today is what I learned back in Russia - the work ethic, the commitment. I attribute a lot of my success to what I learned" in the former Soviet Union, said Krayzelburg.
After Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev loosened economic restrictions, Krayzelburg's father, Oleg, opened a small, private business.
But the possibility that Krayzelburg might have to serve in the army when he turned 18 - the Soviet Union was then engaged in a war against Afghanistan - and anti-Semitism in that part of the world motivated his parents to emigrate.
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 4-5 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. In order to make money to help out his family, Lenny worked as a lifeguard at the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic and Fairfax.
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 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 200 Back] 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."
At the 1996 Olympics, Lenny finished fifth in the 200-meter, and holds the world record in both the 100 and 200.
He also earned a degree in finance from the University of Southern California.Even though he is swimming for the United States, Krayzelburg, described by The New York Times as "movie-star handsome," knows a lot of his friends and family in Odessa will be following his races with special interest.
Krayzelburg, who has a reputation as one of the hardest trainers on the U.S. team, tries to deal with the pressure he faces by enjoying himself in the pool.
"I've kind of already proven myself. I just try to go out and swim well - and that puts a smile on my face. 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."
Los Angeles writer Jason Levine contributed to this story.
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