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Anybody looking for a way to observe the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall might want to go to College Park this week to cheer for Lenny Krayzelburg.
Krayzelburg will be in town to compete in the FINA World Cup swim meet. He’s a made-for-TV-movie waiting to happen. Barring injury and upset, he’ll wear the red, white, and blue Speedo of the U.S. team at the Olympics in Sydney. In a sport where most superstars start gaining notoriety sometime around puberty, the hunky 24-year-old Southern California resident seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate backstroke events at American and international competitions. This summer, he set world records in three events in a single meet.
Krayzelburg isn’t from nowhere, but he’s not from the U.S., either. He was born in Odessa, Russia, in what was then the U.S.S.R., and learned his way around a pool as part of a Red Army athletic program. A coach there once told Oleg Krayzelburg that his then-7-year-old son was born to be a great backstroker. That got the kid dreaming of swimming in the Olympics. For the Soviet Union, of course.
He’s not a kid anymore. Now he’s got an American dream.
“In the Olympics, you represent your country,” he says. “And now, I’m here. I’m an American.”
Krayzelburg understands the peculiarity of his situation. For most of his life, the Olympic Games were promoted mainly as a way for the U.S. and the Soviets to measure up against each other without letting any missiles fly. To Americans, the most significant Olympic moments of the last three decades involved the Soviets, and vice versa. America’s biggest defeat? Hands down, the U.S.S.R. basketball team’s still-unbelievable win over the nearly mythical U.S. squad in the gold-medal game of the 1972 games in Munich. The biggest victory? Easy: eight years later in Lake Placid, when the U.S. hockey team beat the unbeatable Soviets. Off the playing fields, the biggest news was the U.S. boycott of the Moscow summer games in 1980, followed closely by the payback four years later, when the Soviet Union and the entire Eastern bloc stayed away from Los Angeles.
“Growing up, I could tell there were only two things that the Russian government really cared about,” Krayzelburg says, with a dialect that is far more SoCal than Eastern Euro. “They wanted to have better nuclear power than the U.S.—and a better Olympic team.”
The sports facilities reflected the state’s desires. Though the overall economy was never too sparkling, Krayzelburg says the training centers in Odessa were world-class, even those used by 7-year-olds. The beaches were great, too. Still, back in 1989, as the Soviet bloc crumpled, Oleg Krayzelburg wasn’t thinking about raising an Olympian. Persecution of Jews in the unstable environment was his great concern. And, after a lot of thought, he quit his job as a coffee shop manager and gave up a comfortable existence to move his wife, Yelena, and kids, Lenny and Marsha, to a Los Angeles community full of other expatriates.
Lenny Krayzelburg wasn’t quite 14 at the time, and coming to America should have killed off his Olympic fantasies. He all but stopped swimming competitively for four years after his arrival. The high school where he was enrolled didn’t even have a swim team, so he took up typical American pastimes: basketball and baseball. He stayed in shape for those sports and kept his swimming stroke smooth while sharing lanes with the recreational swimmers at the nearby Westside Jewish Community Center a few times a week.
Near the end of his senior year, Krayzelburg decided he wanted to get back into swimming but thought his options were limited.
“I hadn’t been on a team, so I had no times to send anybody that were any good,” says Krayzelburg. “So nobody was going to give me a scholarship. I planned to just go to the local junior college [Santa Monica City College] and take classes for $14 a unit like every student, and try to swim some there.”
But, on a whim, he talked to the coach at Santa Monica City College, and that coach saw in Krayzelburg exactly what the Red Army instructor had seen so many years earlier back in Odessa: The kid was going to be a backstroke star. The SMCC coach worked the freshman back into training, and by the end of his first year at the school, Krayzelburg had set a national junior college record in the 100-yard backstroke. That feat got him a scholarship offer from the University of Southern California in 1995. Though Krayzelburg probably didn’t know it, when he accepted that offer, he was well on his way to making his childhood dreams come true: USC at that time had produced more Olympic athletes (281) than any other school in the country.
Krayzelburg continued to cut seconds off his times in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, and, a few months after gaining U.S. citizenship, tried out for the American 1996 Olympic team. He swam fifth in the trials and didn’t make the cut, but the meet served notice that Krayzelburg had arrived.
“Nobody had heard of me before the trials,” he said. “So when I made it to the finals, I remember the PR guy running around trying to find a bio on me, because he didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have that trouble after that, and even though I didn’t make the team, coming out of that I felt like it was only a matter of time before my turn came.”
A matter of four years, to be precise. And in the interim, Krayzelburg has become the king of the backstroke, winning the 100- and 200-meter events at every national competition he’s competed in since 1996. He’s also gotten a degree in finance from USC and stayed very close to his family. Add some silver and gold, and Krayzelburg is perfect marketing fodder for the upcoming Olympiad.
Speedo was the first to put big money on Krayzelburg’s future. After he broke the world records last summer at the same pool in Sydney where the next Olympic swim meet will be held, the skimpy-swimsuit manufacturer signed him to the most lucrative endorsement deal it had ever given a non-Olympian. (Most Olympic federations have stopped trying to hide their professionalism, much the same way pro wrestling groups now flaunt their phoniness, so athletes can take payments in the open now.) Krayzelburg still has difficulty grasping the concept of getting paid to swim for your country, and when trying to explain his difficulty, fairly paraphrases a monologue from Moscow on the Hudson:
“I don’t know if it’s because I come from another place,” he says, “but now to make money, good money, doing something that you’ve done for free for so many years, that’s incredible to me. It doesn’t seem real. Swimming is something I’ve loved from the bottom of my heart, and now I’m getting paid for it. It really doesn’t get any better than this, does it?”
He’ll find out in Sydney.—Dave McKenna