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 prime U.S. male hope for swimming gold medals in Sydney, 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 5� 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. "He's in his senior year at Fairfax, and I say, ' Fairfax doesn't have a swimming team.' And he says, 'That's right.' I was skeptical. There aren't many kids who just show up who can swim fast."