Last week the 24-year-old Krayzelburg called on both aspects of his background to win three gold medals and lead an underrated U.S. team to an astounding 33 medals in the pool. In a week in which some big fish got reeled in Australian sensation Ian Thorpe, Dutch wonderboy Pieter van den Hoogenband and the Russian Rocket, Alexander Popov, each found himself bettered in one race or another nobody caught Krayzelburg. Indeed, after a rough start, the rest of the U.S. team outswam the favored Australians, who performed before raucous hometown crowds. Swimming is the Olympics in Australia, yet the U.S. medal haul was the biggest since the boycott-depleted 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
That was the year Vitaly Ovakimian decided Krayzelburg's future. The coach at the Red Army club in Odessa, Ukraine, selected the "born backstroker" with the long, lean body and the almost double-jointed elbows to enter the Soviet sports machine. It churned Krayzelburg through five hours a day of training and produced a superior product.
By the late '80s, Krayzelburg's parents were so worried about the deteriorating Soviet system that they applied for exit visas. The family, including Lenny's sister Marsha, finally left the USSR in 1989 and landed in Los Angeles. At what should have been the peak of his career, Krayzelburg instead found himself struggling to learn a new language, getting a maintenance job at the local Jewish community center and swimming only a couple of hours a week.
Eventually, Krayzelburg found his way to Mark Schubert, the masterly and demanding swim coach at the University of Southern California. It took Schubert less than a week to give Krayzelburg his verdict: "You can be the best in the world." Last year Krayzelburg, now a muscular 6 ft. 2 in. and 190 lbs., broke the world records in the 100-m and 200-m backstroke.
Last week Krayzelburg pulled his disparate life together for three golden moments: the 100-m and 200-m backstroke and a leg in the medley relay. Does he owe it all to the U.S.? No, says Krayzelburg. Not all of it. "I believe growing up in the Soviet sports system under the communist government played a big part in who I am today as a person and as an athlete. I learned things that will stay with me for the rest of my life." The Soviet system taught him a work ethic, says Krayzelburg; the American system gave him a chance to exploit it. "The thing about America is... anything is possible," he says. Especially a Soviet boy's turning into an American Olympic champion.