Born in Odessa in 1975, little Lenny Krayzelburg was part of the Soviet Empire's Olympic training machine. At nine years old he was practicing five hours a day and destined for greatness. However, like hundreds of thousands of other Jewish parents, Oleg and Yelena Krayzelburg were concerned about their son's future. They felt that his chances for success would be greater in America.
"As a Jew growing up in Russia, I never faced much anti-Semitism," said Lenny. "A few times I was called names. But my parents knew that because I was a Jew, my opportunities would be limited there — in sports especially. Being a Jew would have to affect me in some way."
In America, Krayzelburg found an aquatic home at the Westside Jewish Community Center where he practiced and worked thirty hours a week to help support his family. "It was only two weeks after I arrived in the United States that I was back in the water," he said.
But the JCC did not provide him with the challenges he needed. A discouraged Krayzelburg was tempted to give it all up, but his ever-supportive father talked him out of it.
In 1993, Krayzelburg resumed training in earnest at Santa Monica City College. The coach, Stu Blumkin, saw the seventeen-year-old's potential during the first workout, and helped him garner a scholarship to the University of Southern California.
In swimming, champions don't typically show up out of the clear blue sky, and Krayzelburg didn't have a resume or a list of competitions under his belt, but Mark Schubert, the coach at Southern Cal, gave him a chance based on Blumkin's recommendation.
By his sophomore year, Krayzelburg shocked everyone by qualifying for the 1996 Olympic trials in Indianapolis. An immigrant from Odessa, he had the second best time in the 200-meter heats, and nobody had even heard of him. The top two swimmers from these trials would be eligible for the games in Atlanta, but Krayzelburg wasn't ready emotionally. If he had repeated the times he had achieved just that morning, he would have made the team, but instead, he came in fifth.
For the next four years Krayzelburg continued practicing hard. His goal was to go to Sydney. In August of 1999, he broke an unprecedented three world records in the 50-, 100-, and 200-meter backstroke events and won three gold medals at the Pan American Pacific Championships. In Sydney, Krayzelburg's received gold medals in the 100-meter backstroke, the 200-meter backstroke, and the 400-medley relay, breaking two Olympic records in the process.
Krayzelburg plans to skip the next world championships and participate in the Maccabia Games instead. "In 1993 I was invited to participate in the Maccabiah Games, but I just couldn't afford it because you have to pay for your own trip. In 1997, I was invited again, but I had other swimming commitments."
"Being Jewish is a part of me, it's a part of my culture. I find it fascinating and I want to learn as much about it as possible. I hope to raise my own children with more religion. I hope to sometime become involved in charitable causes in the Jewish community." Planning on touring the country while he is in Israel, Krayzelburg is anxious to see the Western Wall.
Never having had much time for dating, Krayzelburg says he would like to eventually meet the right someone. "I was kind of limited in what I could do, I couldn't stay out late because I always had to get up so early. But I knew what I wanted to accomplish and I figured that relationships could wait." Though he has received his share of email marriage proposals, he is hoping to find a Russian woman who shares his heritage. "If I could find someone who is also Jewish — that would be important too," he said.
Krayzelburg qualified for the 2004 Olympics by finishing second in the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. Olympic Trials. He finished in a time of 54.06. Lenny entered his first swim on August 15, in the sixth heat of the 100-meter backstroke. He finished third in the heat, clocking in at 54.87 and thus qualifying for the semi-finals. Later that day, he competed in the second semi-final, as he came in second and improved his time to 54.63. Krayzelburg swam in lane six in the 100-meter backstroke final, held on August 16. The American swimmer came into the final with the fifth best result in qualification. In the final itself Lenny was a mere 2/100ths of a second away from a medal as he came in fourth in a 54.38 time. Krayzelburg was in action again on August 20, as he swam the opening leg for the men's 4X100 medley relay team. He had the best personal time of any opening leg in either heat (54.27) as the U.S.A qualified with the best time of any team (3:35.10). Lenny did not swim in the final, but was awarded a gold medal as the U.S.A took first place and smashed the world record.
Source: Jewish Sports; USA Swimming