Fresh start suits Krayzelburg

World-record holder favored to win gold in 100 and 200 backstroke

September 16, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SYDNEY, Australia - From the convicts exiled here by England two centuries ago, to the Asians who have arrived in recent decades, Australia has long been a symbol of a fresh start.

That's what Lenny Krayzelburg's parents sought in 1989, when they pulled up their roots in the Ukraine, fled anti-Semitism and joined a booming community of Eastern European and Russian Jews in Los Angeles.

Krayzelburg has made another long journey, this time to the Olympics, to collect three gold medals in swimming and prove he's the sport's fastest backstroker ever.

"What I learned in Russia, particularly the work ethic and dedication, is a big part of my career," Krayzelburg said Thursday.

"Obviously, my parents thought that coming to the United States would give me a better opportunity to be in swimming and have a better life. They made a big step. I think it would be nice to pay them back by winning a couple of gold medals."

A 24-year-old with slicked-back hair and a strapping build, Krayzelburg figures to be as comfortable as an American can be at the Sydney International Aquatic Center, where crowds in excess of 18,000 will cheer for Australians in a hyped swim competition that starts tomorrow.

Krayzelburg wowed some of those same fans last year, when he climbed out of the Olympic pool with world records in the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes.

He is fulfilling potential that was recognized at the Red Army Club in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, where a coach told Krayzelburg's father that his son would be a great backstroker.

He underwent rigorous training, but his improvement was put on hold when his parents tired of the discrimination they faced as Jews and moved to the United States.

"My parents experienced a lot more than me, and they thought my possibilities were limited," Krayzelburg said. "The war in Afghanistan was going on. The Army was mandatory, there was no way around it, and that was a big concern for my parents. It was exciting to go someplace new, but I never realized what kind of a decision that was for my parents, leaving their life there behind."

He lists Michael Jordan and Cal Ripken as his heroes and peppers his language with familiar slang, but it took several years for him to be Americanized.

Krayzelburg worked part-time, and immersed himself in English and swimming, as he commuted 45 minutes to train with the Santa Monica Swim Club.

He was a junior college water polo player who thought that he had peaked as a swimmer when he caught the eye of USC coach Mark Schubert.

"I have vivid memories of the first week Lenny was with me," said Schubert, who also happens to be the U.S. Olympic men's coach.

"He didn't have spectacular technique. We had three or four guys who could swim 2:01 or better [for the 200 backstroke]. Lenny wasn't that fast, but he would stay with them until he couldn't swim anymore. That told me something about his work ethic.

"Halfway through that summer, I told him, `You can be the best in the world.' The best part about all this is how he kept developing."

Krayzelburg swept the backstrokes at the 1997 Pan Pacific championships, as he took the 100 in 54.43 seconds and the 200 in 1:57.87.

At that same meet here last year, he lowered the world records to 53.60 and 1:55.87, respectively.

He is to the American team what big Ian Thorpe is to the Australians, their surest thing.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine this happening," Krayzelburg said.

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