Stroke Of Luck

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U.S. swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg glides through the water

He lived in west hollywood in the shadow of Sunset Strip, probably the most dream-filled stretch of real estate in his new, dream-filled land. He could see the billboards on top of the buildings every day, the pictures of the movie stars and recording artists smiling down on the luxury cars that purred past, money on parade. He was surrounded by the colors, the noise, the flash and the folly of the commercial opportunities available in the United States. The irony wasn't lost on Lenny Krayzelburg, child of the Soviet Union. Why was his piece of this grand picture missing? If there was something for everyone, why was there nothing for him? He would be better off back in Odessa, back in Ukraine. "I knew what it took to be a world-class swimmer, because I'd been in a program to develop world-class swimmers," he says now, 24 years old, the world-record holder in both the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes. "I knew I wasn't getting that here. No matter what I did on my own, I knew I didn't have a chance."

When he arrived in the U.S., in 1989, with his parents, Oleg and Yelena, and his younger sister, Marsha, he was a 13-year-old fish-out-of-chlorinated-water. He didn't have a good place to swim, didn't have a coach, didn't have a swimming future. How could this have been? His life since he'd been six had centered around a pool. Oleg, who worked as a coffee-shop manager in the U.S.S.R., had enrolled Lenny in a class at the Army Sports Club in Odessa, just something to do until the boy was a year older, ready for soccer. That was the start. The coaches spotted a talent for the backstroke and nurtured it. When he was put into a special school for swimmers at age nine, he practiced for 51*2 hours every day. There were 25- and 50-meter pools at the school. There was a two-story building with locker rooms and classrooms. There were weights, instruction, coaches always on the pool deck. Want to be a champion? That was how to become a champion.

"When we got here, one of the first things my father did was enroll me with the Team Santa Monica swim club," Krayzelburg says. "It was a good program, but it was too far away. We didn't own a car, so I had to take a bus for 45 minutes and then walk eight blocks. I was going to school, I was working an after-school job to help out the family, I was studying English. It was all too much." Lenny wanted to quit the sport. Oleg wouldn't listen. Swimming was important. Why had Oleg packed five bags and left everything else behind when the doors at last were opened for Jewish families to emigrate from the U.S.S.R? He had done it for his children. Swimming was going to be Lenny's ticket to acceptance, success. Wasn't America the home of Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi?

The answer was the Westside Jewish Community Center. It had an old 25-yard pool, far from Olympic standards, but it was close to where the Krayzelburgs were living. It had a swim team, though not a serious training program. Lenny could practice on his own, compete with the team. There was no swim team at his high school, Fairfax, a basketball factory that had sent Chris Mills and Sean Higgins toward NBA careers, so the Westside JCC became Lenny's sole base for swimming. He even wound up with a lifeguard job there, so he was at the center for much of his day.

"It was good for me because it forced me to learn English," he says. "In school there were a lot of other Russian kids, so we always could talk among ourselves. But at the center no one spoke Russian. I had to learn English. For swimming, though, no matter what I did, I knew I wasn't making enough progress. I knew what those kids were doing in Odessa. I wasn't doing that here." Would he never grow, never develop? That was a real possibility. His gift might have been left behind with the family's other possessions.

"So this kid shows up one day and says he'd like to work out with our team," says Stu Blumkin, who was the swim coach at Santa Monica City College in 1993. "I was skeptical. There aren't many kids who just show up who can swim fast." The child of the Soviet Union was now 17. He could speak English. He had a car. The family had moved out of West Hollywood to Studio City. He had sent out letters to four-year colleges, looking for a scholarship, but without a boxful of blue ribbons and medals, he didn't have much of a résumé. Not one college was interested. "What can you do for the 100-yard back?" Blumkin asked. "Fifty-five seconds," Krayzelburg said. "Let's see."

The potential was obvious in that first workout. Blumkin arranged for Krayzelburg, as a high school student, to practice with the team. He was a revelation. "He was just that kid who worked harder than everyone else," Blumkin says. "Anything you told him to do, he did it. He was the first one here, last to leave. He thrived on work. The more I watched him, the more I thought, This kid's potential is unlimited."

Krayzelburg enrolled at Santa Monica City College and played water polo. He soon became Blumkin's best swimmer. But Blumkin knew Krayzelburg would be better off in a big-time environment. UCLA would have been the first choice, but the Bruins had recently dropped men's swimming. The University of Southern California was an easy second choice. Blumkin contacted Trojans coach Mark Schubert. "In all the time I've been coaching, this might have been the most unselfish act I've ever seen," Schubert says. "Lenny had another year of eligibility at Santa Monica, but Stu was looking for what was best for him."

Schubert, too, was skeptical at the beginning. Potential world champions don't just show up. Of all sports, swimming is the most measured, timed, predictable. There aren't supposed be surprises. Yet here was a big surprise. Schubert, too, became a fast convert. He offered a scholarship. "This was a totally different level of competition for me," Krayzelburg says. "When I showed up, I was the fifth-fastest backstroker on the team. I wasn't eligible for my first year, so I only could swim in the little, 25-meter pool every day, while the team practiced in the big pool. That was my pool, the little pool."

By the time he had finished his sophomore season, in the spring of 1996, he was on a fast rise. He went to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis that March and caused a great stir when he had the second-best time in the 200-meter heats. Krayzelburg? From USC? There wasn't even a thumbnail biography of him in the meet's voluminous press materials. Even Krayzelburg was surprised. The top two swimmers in the final would qualify for Atlanta. He was in a position to make it. His head buzzed with the unexpected thought. Was he ready for this?

His body was. His mind wasn't. Starting too fast, trying to do too much, Krayzelburg finished fifth in the final. If he'd simply repeated his morning time, he'd have made the team. Trojans teammate Brad Bridgewater went to Atlanta and became the Olympic champion. "I called Lenny from Atlanta the night Brad won the 200," says Schubert, who will coach the U.S. men's team in Sydney. "I told him, four years from now that could be him." "The crazy thing is that it could have been him in Atlanta," Blumkin says. "The trials were such a breakthrough for him, and he just kept improving after that. By the time the Olympics were held, he was the fastest backstroker in the world, but he wasn't in the meet."

The growth has continued. In 1998, Krayzelburg won golds in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the world championships, in Perth. Last year in Sydney he broke world records in the 100 and 200. At the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis this month, he won both the 100 and 200 backstroke. Without having swum an Olympic race, Krayzelburg has become the U.S.'s most recognizable male swimmer, signed to a six-figure Speedo endorsement contract. "Two years ago I went back to Odessa with my parents and my sister," Lenny says. "I went to the pool ... the place where I started to swim. It was very sad. The building was vacant. The pool was now a dump. It was filled with garbage."

What would have happened if the Krayzelburgs hadn't moved? Their native land changed. The emphasis on sports diminished. Would he still have wound up where he is? Would his determination, his hard work, have triumphed in that situation too? Hard to say. "I didn't see any of the other swimmers from when I was in school, but I did see some other friends," he says. "I found that it was very hard to have a conversation with them. They were in a different place from me. They were out, working. They hadn't gone to school. They were married; most of them had children. For me, right now, marriage? It would be like walking on the moon, the idea of me being married. I am too busy."

He says he thinks he will some day marry a Russian woman, that an American woman probably wouldn't understand the life he wants. He's still very much Russian. He speaks the language every day with his family, with friends. He wants his future family to resemble his present family. He says he owes everything to his father and mother. His father is a cook at a hospital. His mother is a technician in the pharmacy at a hospital. "It would still be best for my father and my mother to be back in Odessa," Krayzelburg says. "That is where they would be happier. That's where their friends are. They came here for my sister and me. To give us the opportunity."

Krayzelburg speaks easily in English, no trace of an accent. His father speaks little English, his mother a bit more. Cutting across the campus at USC, where he still trains, the child of the Soviet Union stops often to talk with friends, students and teammates. He talks about the Lakers, the Dodgers, whatever. He talks about the NASDAQ. His degree is in finance. "So, do you think I look Russian?" he suddenly asks. His hair is blond. His eyes are blue. He could be featured on one of those Soviet posters of the Cold War, staring ahead toward the end of the latest five-year plan. Yes, he looks Russian. Very Russian. "Oh," he says, "most people are surprised when they hear I'm from Odessa. They think I'm Californian."

Well, his hair is blond. His eyes are blue. He could be standing next to an SUV with a surfboard and a smile, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts. Yes, he looks Californian. Very Californian. He's both. That is the beauty of his success. Of all the stories that will be spun from now until the end of the Sydney Games, his is one of the oldest and best success-story stories: the immigrant who has come to a new land and worked hard and overcome obstacles and found exactly what he hoped to find. The American dream.