Lenny Krayzelburg has been a swimmer of promise ever since he was growing up near the Black Sea in the Russian city of Odessa. When he was eight, his coach at the Sports Army Club had seen enough in their five-hour training sessions to tell Lenny's father, "Your son is born to be a backstroker. Nothing else." But plenty else would intervene. Within five years Lenny's father, Oleg, had quit his job running a state-owned coffee shop, and his mother, Yelena, had resigned her accountant's position at a shoe factory. It was 1988. The Soviets were waging war in Afghanistan, and when Oleg looked into his only son's face—a visage that's nearly a mirror image of his own—he told himself, I don't want my boy taken by the army.
So the Krayzelburgs left for America, with thought of trifles like 13-year-old Lenny's swimming. As their train left the Odessa station, all that remained of their life in Russia was stuffed into five suitcases. There was no way to know that Lenny would fulfill his coach's prophecy, albeit half a world away, that at the U.S. swimming championships in Clovis, Calif., last week, the 22-year-old Krayzelburg would firmly establish himself as the ascendant star in American men's swimming.
Racing outdoors, in 106� weather, Krayzelburg won the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, just as he had in his breakout performance at the world championships in Perth, Australia, last January. He also produced the most stirring performance of the meet: a wire-to-wire assault on Spain's Martin Zubero's nearly seven-year-old world record of 1:56.57 in the 200 back. By the time Krayzelburg began his drive down the homestretch, the meet announcer was shouting that Krayzelburg was on world-record pace through three laps of the four-lap race, swimmers and fans were rushing in from the warmup pool, and the grandstand crowd of about 1,500 was on its feet "C'mon!" the announcer shrieked. "How many of you folks have seen a world record?"
To Krayzelburg it barely mattered that he finished eight tenths of a second off Zubero's mark. His American-record time, the only one of the meet, was the second-fastest 200 backstroke in history, and Oleg was there to see it. "You hear about Olympic champions or these other people who swim fast all the time," says Lenny. "Then all of a sudden, you're one of them."
But with this caveat: "Lenny had to go through far more than any of us to get here," says USC teammate Brad Bridgewater, the 1996 Olympic champion in the 200 back and Krayzelburg's training partner at the Trojan Swim Club. But Krayzelburg never puts it that way. He says he wore a smile at the nationals because "the older I get, the more I appreciate how my parents sacrificed so I could have a better life. My swimming is how I repay them."
Through most of his teens, Krayzelburg felt lucky if he was able to train 10 hours a week, about a third of his regimen in Russia. The apartments where the Krayzelburgs lived in the Russian-American neighborhoods of West Hollywood and Studio City weren't as big as the home they left in Odessa. The family was learning English, and money was tight. "In a country like Russia you always hear that America is paradise," Lenny says. "But it's not as easy when you get here as you think it will be when you're overseas."
Lenny went to work at 14 as a lifeguard to help with expenses. Two years later he was working 30 hours a week at the West Hollywood Recreation Department—a routine he continued at Santa Monica City Junior College, where he got his first athletic break after no one recruited him out of Fairfax High in 1993. USC and Trojan Swim Club coach Mark Schubert says, "Near the end of Lenny's first year, his junior college coach, Stu Blumkin, called me and said, I have this backstroker I think you should take a look at. Maybe he could train this summer with your club team.' " Laughing out loud now, Schubert adds, "I was just in the right place at the right time. After about a week I called Stu and said, 'This kid isn't just good—he's going to be really good.' "
Training regularly again after he enrolled at USC, Krayzelburg cut 10 seconds off his 200 backstroke time in three months. He and his family became U.S. citizens in 1995, and Lenny just missed qualifying for the '96 Olympic team. His career has been climbing ever since, and last month (with his college eligibility behind him) Speedo signed him to a six-figure contract that a company spokesman calls the most lucrative ever given to a swimmer who hasn't been an Olympian. But Krayzelburg quietly insisted on an unusual clause: Speedo will fly his parents and sister, Marsha, 20, to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. On Monday the Krayzelburgs were scheduled to depart for what Marsha called another trip of a lifetime—their first voyage back to Odessa.
Lenny's mother said she couldn't wait to taste fish fresh from the Black Sea. The sports club where Lenny learned to swim is shut down, but Lenny and Oleg want to see that youth coach, Vitaly Ovakimian. "We just want to thank him," Lenny says, "and I want to ask him, 'What did you ever see in me?' "