NEW YORK, Sept. 6 (JTA) — Millions of immigrants have flocked to the United States looking for streets paved with gold.
Lenny Krayzelburg, who came to the United States from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1988 is searching for gold as well — but in a pool at Sydney’s Olympic Games.
Several Jewish athletes from the former Soviet Union are competing for Israel in this year’s Games, which begin Sept. 15, but the one competing for the United States — Krayzelburg — appears to be the one most likely to win.
As an immigrant, Krayzelburg, who now lives in Southern California, says he faces pressure beyond the opponents he faces in his competitions.
“Your parents make a lifetime change. They had a pretty stable life back in Russia. We were financially well off. Here they make their life change for the betterment of their kid,” Krayzelburg, 24, told JTA shortly before leaving for Sydney on Sunday.
“You as a child want to become successful so that that was the right decision, that it was right for them to leave. It’s definitely an extra incentive,” said Krayzelburg, who will compete in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke.
Working out his problems in the pool is something he was conditioned to do in the Soviet Union, where he was identified as a possible world-class athlete before he was 10.
This identification entitled him to attend a school with 44 other swimmers who went to classes and swam together for 12 hours a day.
“A lot of who I am today is what I learned back in Russia — the work ethic, the commitment. I attribute a lot of my success to what I learned” in the former Soviet Union.
Even though he is swimming for the United States, Krayzelburg, described by The New York Times as “movie-star handsome,” knows a lot of his friends and family in Odessa will be following his races with special interest.
By Soviet standards, Krayzelburg’s family was well off. His army- sponsored school gave him vouchers for free meals, and the family lived in a three-bedroom apartment.
And after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev loosened economic restrictions, Krayzelburg’s father, Oleg, opened a small, private business.
But the possibility that Krayzelburg might have to serve in the army when he turned 18 — the Soviet Union was then engaged in a war against Afghanistan — and anti-Semitism in that part of the world motivated his parents to emigrate.
“We saw the discrimination around us. If a Russian kid wants to go to university, they cut the number of Jewish kids getting higher education. When you fill out the application for a job, and they ask for your nationality and they find out you are Jewish, they try not to hire you,” as his mother, Yelena, recently described Soviet-era state-sponsored discrimination to the Times.
But after Krayzelburg immigrated to the United States, he faced a number of pitfalls, both in and out of the pool.
Finding a pool that would allow him to train was one problem. Learning English was another.
“When you don’t speak the language, your hands are tied. It probably took me about four years to speak with people.”
His family struggled financially, and in order to make money to help out his family, he worked as a lifeguard at the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.
Despite these difficulties, Krayzelburg eventually shined in the water. He won the 1994 California state junior championships in the 100- and 200- meter backstroke, setting a national junior college record in the backstroke.
He finished fifth in the Olympics in the 200-meter backstroke at the 1996 Olympic trials, and owns the world record in both the 100 and 200.
He also earned a degree in finance from the University of Southern California.
Krayzelburg, who has a reputation as one of the hardest trainers on the U.S. team, tries to deal with the pressure he faces by enjoying himself in the pool.
“I’ve kind of already proven myself. I just try to go out and swim well — and that puts a smile on my face,” he says.