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America's Next Backstroke Star


Russ Ewald

Brad Bridgewater is not only the Olympic gold medallist in the 200 metre backstroke but also a good judge of talent in his event. A year ago when his Trojan teammate Lenny Krayzelburg had not won a major competition, Bridgewater predicted: "Lenny is the next thing for U.S. backstroke. He has more talent than I ever had. He gets faster every time he gets in the water."

Krayzelburg, who emigrated from the Ukraine with his parents and sister in 1988, has lived up to his teammate's lofty assessment. He bettered the American record in the 200 metre backstroke at this summer's U.S. championships while sweeping the backstrokes for the third successive time at the nationals. Last March, he won the 200 back at the NCAA Championships by almost two seconds.

The 21-year-old swimmer credits Bridgewater for his success in the last year.

"After he won in Atlanta, I had a lot of confidence in myself because we were doing the same workouts basically," says Krayzelburg. "We even tapered the same."

Krayzelburg began swimming in Odessa, a city of one million in the Ukraine, when he was 5. He swam at a nearby army sports club and got seconds and thirds but never a win in his age group in national competition.

"We had a great facility," he remembers. "It was a 50-metre pool. I don't think the USC pool is better than the one I trained in there. The country might have been poor, but the athletes always had great training facilities and lived better than others."

His parents, feeling discrimination as Jews, decided to move to the United States when Lenny was 13. Moving a year before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the family was able to leave by getting an invitation from former Soviets living in Los Angeles.

Although Krayzelburg began swimming soon after settling in Los Angeles, he never trained seriously until his first year in junior college. His high school didn't have a swim team. He took a bus to Santa Monica to work out once a day with a club there for a year. He found a closer pool at the Westside Jewish Community Center, but the small, crowded facility was not conducive to elite training. He competed in some junior nationals without ever making the top 16.

Stu Blumkin, the Santa Monica Junior College coach, recalls Krayzelburg coming into his office and telling him that Westside coach Steve Becker recommended he swim at Santa Monica.

"I asked what high school he went to," says Blumkin. "He said Fairfax. I'm thinking in the back of my mind, Fairfax doesn't even have a swim program. How good can this kid be?"

Krayzelburg turned out to be quite good. He dropped his best time in the 200 yard back from 1:55.39 to a national JC record of 1:47.91 and also won the 100 back (50.74) at the 1994 California JC championships. While training twice a day for the first time since coming to America and going to classes, he worked 30 hours a week at a recreation centre to support himself.

Blumkin believed Krayzelburg could compete at the top level and persuaded USC coach Mark Schubert to let his swimmer train with the Trojan team that summer. Under Schubert, the Santa Monica star worked on his underwater starts and turns and learned to pace his races. Only 5-foot-8 in high school, he continued to grow to his current 6-foot-2 frame and began weight training. Those factors helped him drop from 2:13.65 to 2:03.99 in the 200 metre back. He skipped the nationals that year, though, since foreigners were not allowed to swim in the finals (the meet served as trials for the World Championships).

Schubert offered him a scholarship, but Krayzelburg had to spend another year and a half at Santa Monica to qualify academically at USC. He chose not to compete in junior college a second season to be eligible for three years at USC. In the meantime, he earned Rookie of the Meet honours at the 1995 summer nationals with a 10th place in the 200 back and became a U.S. citizen.

Lenny Krayzelburg
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Lenny Krayzelburg
Birthdate 28 Sept 1975
Hometown Studio City, California
Height 6' 2"
Weight 180 pounds
Occupation College Student
Represents Trojan Swim Club
Coach Mark Schubert

Krayzelburg lost citizenship in the Soviet Union when his family left the Ukraine. While his chances of making the Olympics in 1996 would have been a lot better if he could have obtained Ukrainian citizenship, he didn't want to go that route.

"I was getting better and thought I had a slight chance of making the U.S. team," says Krayzelburg. "Also, if you make the U.S. team, you are one of the top swimmers in the world."

His Olympic dreams became more real when he swam the second-fastest time (2:00.49) in the heats at the U.S. trials. However, in the final, he slipped to fifth (2:00.72). He placed 13th in the 100 back (56.52).

"It was my first big meet," reflects Krayzelburg. "I had swum at nationals, but it was nothing compared to this. I don't think I realized what position I was in. I was too relaxed. In the morning, I thought I might have gone out too fast and I was hurting coming back. Mark and I decided to change my strategy. Then I went out too slow and that was it. I guess it was all a learning process."

Krayzelburg learned his lesson by the nationals last summer. He came home in the 200 back in 59.72—faster than any of the finalists at the Olympics - to win in 1:59.37. He went 56.11 in the 100 back and 55.86 in the medley relay.

"He doesn't get rattled if people go out in front of him in the 200 back," says Schubert. "He's very comfortable swimming his own race. He is capable of a devastating last 50."

Schubert thinks Krayzelburg and Bridgewater have made the most of their rivalry.

"When you've got two guys that are among the best in the world," he says, "it creates a unique training opportunity for both swimmers, particularly when they approach it with a positive attitude instead of looking at each other as a threat. They see each other as their best advantage and that everyday in practice they are working against the best in the world."

The work ethic of the backstroke pair has helped everybody on his team, says the USC coach. Schubert once asked Krayzelburg the difference between Soviet age group swimmers and Americans. Krayzelburg replied: "It seems to me the first priority of American age groupers is to have fun. In the Soviet Union, the fun came from working hard against each other in practice and the results you got from the hard work."

Krayzelburg is having fun now.

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