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Fame in His Wake

By LISA DILLMAN, Times Staff Writer

LA Times, Thursday, September 7, 2000

Lenny Krayzelburg's path has taken him from the Ukraine to the U.S. to Sydney, where the world-record holder in the backstroke will be favored to become an Olympic champion.

Who is Lenny Krayzelburg, anyway?
Nearly anyone with a TV set who has happened upon NBC the last few months knows him as an athlete who will be in Sydney. Sports fans know him as best backstroker in the world. Real chlorine clones know he holds the world record in the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes. They have memorized his world-record times--53.60 seconds in the 100 and 1:55.87 in the 200, and if you want to get beyond that, well, there are always split times.

He's good. He's fast.

But what's beyond the smile and the Pat Riley hair?

Krayzelburg, of Studio City, is one of the most recognized swimmers in this country, even though he has yet to compete in the Olympics, a symbol of pride among his Ukrainian countrymen and a sports celebrity in swimming-crazed Australia, by virtue of his two world records in a four-day span in August 1999.

There are ways to find out more, and few subjects are more cooperative than Krayzelburg, who was so accommodating at the U.S. trials last month in Indianapolis--making sure he took care of everyone in the chaotic mixed zone--that a reporter asked him why he was so helpful.

Krayzelburg smiled and replied that there was plenty of time to rest.

That is, after Sydney.

The Story
Any story about Krayzelburg would not be complete without The Story. He knows it and is ready to tell it again . . . and again . . . and again.

His family decided to leave Odessa in 1988 when he was 13. There were three reasons behind the move to the United States--the Jewish family had faced discrimination and realized the young boy would eventually be drafted into the army if they stayed. Plus, there were better opportunities in the United States for the children.

"A few times a week, I have to tell it," said Krayzelburg, who became a U.S. citizen in 1995. "I try to change it up a little bit. There's not an awful lot I can change. The facts are the same, really. But I try to put it in different words. Or more detail here, or not as much detail there."

The bottom line is that his journey from Odessa to Los Angeles is a compelling one.

In the early days, Krayzelburg's father, Oleg, knew his son was exhausted from a draining schedule, taking a long bus ride to get to practice in Santa Monica. Oleg was so upset he couldn't sleep at night, realizing his son might quit the sport.

They spoke and Oleg reminded Lenny that his first coach told him that the youngster was born to be a backstroker, a great athlete. He kept swimming and the rest is swimming history.

Which leads to . . .

The Competitor
 Krayzelburg once lost to Neil Walker, a rare defeat, in a 50-meter short-course event. He climbed out of the pool, told a USA Swimming official, "Watch," and promptly went out and broke a short-course world record in the 200 backstroke.

His closest rival in the 200 backstroke lives more than an hour south of Krayzelburg's training grounds at USC and is seven years younger, 17-year-old Aaron Peirsol of Irvine. Peirsol, who beat Krayzelburg in a meet at USC in July, recorded the fastest time of the year at the U.S. Nationals in March at Federal Way, Wash.

Peirsol went a personal-best 1:57.03 and was self-deprecating when asked about Krayzelburg's reaction. Later, Krayzelburg admitted he was monitoring the race on the Internet at home in Southern California and was not dismissive the way Peirsol thought he would be about the time.

"That's not true. You have to give credit where it's due. That's an amazing time. He's only 17?" Krayzelburg said. "That's the scary thing about it. He has a world of potential. I was actually listening. You can listen on the computer. I was kind of shocked. He was 1:24.6 at the 150 and he brought it back in 29.4, which really shocked me right there. That was a fast split on the last 50.

"Having him here is more challenging now. You have to have more strategies now. Before, when I had a four-second lead, I could swim any race I wanted in terms of going out fast or going out slow. I have to be more precise on how I want to approach it--what my strengths are and what his strengths are."

Which leads to . . .

Family Ties
Krayzelburg was joking the other day about his competitive nature. At the U.S. training camp in Pasadena, he was having trouble taking it down a level. So what if he was supposed to ease off? What about those freestylers in the next lane?

The source of this is easy to find. His father, Oleg, wondered why Lenny didn't win the 50 the day he broke the short-course world record in the 200 in November. And his mother, Yelena, had to give her husband a couple of swats after the 100 at the U.S. trials when he wondered what went wrong with his son's finish.

Later, the father and son realized that they were headed to Sydney, and frankly, 53.84 was a great time, bad finish and all. Afterward, the father and son hugged and Lenny said he had never seen his father so emotional after a race.

Krayzelburg laughed and said his father is more competitive than he is.
"They'll be nervous in Sydney. It's always harder to watch," he said.

Which leads to . . .

Russia . . . for Love
If you haven't figured it out, family is very important in Krayzelburg's life. He has frequently said he wants to marry a Russian woman, not an American . . . whenever he gets around to that stage of his life.
"I feel the Russian culture kind of stresses, embodies family. I'm sure you know I have a pretty close family," he said. "I think it's important I have the same thing when I have a family. I just feel more comfortable marrying a Russian woman because that's what she's been taught too.

"You can look past things or arguments and stuff like that. Not to take anything away from American women, but I feel American women are a lot more independent. That's why if there are problems, they're not afraid to divorce or kind of go their own way. I really like the Russian mentality."
Which leads to . . .

The Good
What Krayzelburg likes the most about himself--out of the pool--is that he has changed, matured, if you will.

Krayzelburg, who will turn 25 on Sept. 28, noted that he takes things a little less seriously these days.
"When I was younger I was really stubborn, I would get upset at things very easily," he said. "And now, I've been more open to people. If there is an argument, I can look past it, forget about it and move on.
"Before I would get really upset, dwell on it and might not talk to a person for a couple of years. I used to be really bad at it. Now, I've definitely opened up and changed."
Which leads to . . .

The Bad
The dedicated, disciplined Krayzelburg has a secret. He is, well, a bit lazy.

It's hardly a glaring character flaw, however.

"I'm lazy in a lot of things," he says, trying to be convincing. "It's very surprising. If I need to mail an envelope and go buy stamps, it can take me four days. You wouldn't think so, considering what we go through. Things like that, these little things, I'm really bad. It's a secret."

A fellow slacker has a solution. How about keeping a roll of stamps in the drawer?
"I do," he said, pragmatically. "But once they're done, it takes a while to go buy them."
OK, so he's fast in the pool, slower than the post office.
Which leads to . . .

The Experts
There are no gold medals for mailing letters, though with the IOC, you never know.

Krayzelburg is a heavy favorite to win both his individual races, and possibly a third gold in the 400 medley relay. The only bigger favorite in swimming at the Games will be Australian teenager Ian Thorpe.

Former Olympic champions Rowdy Gaines and John Naber, both NBC commentators, rave about Krayzelburg as a swimmer and a person. Gaines watched Krayzelburg interact with Peirsol at the recent camp in Pasadena.

"Aaron is fast on Lenny's tail, yet you see him giving him advice," Gaines said. "They all look up to Lenny so much. He's this silent leader. You run out of superlatives with him."

Said Naber: "The thing that makes me like Lenny more than just for his swimming is that he is a gracious, courteous, polite young gentleman. He's the best in the world and many are calling him America's lock for a gold medal and yet he does not appear to demand any sort of entitlement, any special treatment.

"I have often said he is more articulate using English, which is his second language, than many of the swimmers are in their first."

Naber believes Krayzelburg is ultimately capable of a 1:54 in the 200 and a 52-middle in the 100.
"Those would be remarkable times. I don't want to offend Aaron, but Lenny Krayzelburg looks like a racehorse champing at the bit," he said. "From what I hear, he is ready to uncork a Beamonesque swim in Sydney."

Which leads to . . .

The Final Word
Beamonesque?
The Naber comments are relayed to Krayzelburg. He smiles, looks flattered and, maybe, even slightly embarrassed. "Oh, really?" Krayzelburg says.

You won't catch him using that word, especially to compare himself to Bob Beamon, who shattered the world record in the long jump by almost two feet with a prodigious leap of 29 feet 2½ inches at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

"I feel like there's nothing to lose. If I go 53.1 and someone goes 52.9, well, I can't control that," he said. "You kind of get anxious to get going. I'm ready to get to Australia and feel the excitement."

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