LOS ANGELES (Jul. 2)
Like thousands of other Jews this summer, triple Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg is going to camp.
Krayzelburg is warming up for the Maccabiah Games in Israel, which are slated to begin July 16, by sharing his skills and motivation with some 95 kids at the swim camp of the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for the 25-year-old champion, who got his first American swimming experience, and his first job, at the same JCC shortly after his family arrived here in 1988 from the Soviet Union.
Instructing the youngsters, he told JTA, gives him a chance to not only polish their strokes, but to transmit his belief that through commitment, dedication and responsibility they can succeed in any walk of life.
This dedication and single-minded focus helped Krayzelburg break Olympic records when he won the 100- and 200-meter backstroke at last year’s Sydney Olympics — and swam the first leg of the world-record setting 4×100 medley relay team.
His commitment to his Jewish heritage sealed his decision to participate in the Maccabiah when other American athletes, concerned by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, decided to drop out and stay home.
Krayzelburg’s decision was particularly noteworthy because it forced him to skip the World Championships in Japan, which will be taking place at the same time as the Maccabiah.
He acknowledges that the decision to go to Israel wasn’t an easy one and that he first satisfied himself that the best possible security arrangements were in place.
At his parents’ house, his father supported his decision, while his mother opposed it.
“I felt that at this point in my career, people are looking to me for leadership,” he says. “I think we must support Israel during hard times and continue the spirit of the Maccabees.”
Krayzelburg’s athletic prowess was discovered early and he attended a special Soviet sports school. It was a demanding experience, not made easier because, he said, “I was one of three Jews among 2,000 kids. I was called names, and I got into a couple of fights.”
Yet he feels closely linked to his background and promises that when the time comes, he will marry a Russian Jewish woman.
Krayzelburg, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 195 pounds — “I’m five pounds overweight,” he says — believes that he owes his athletic success to his mental edge.
“When you reach the tops, as in the Olympics, the physical abilities of the competitors are pretty much even. The one with the greatest mental strength wins,” he says.
By example and instruction, Krayzelburg’s attitude and philosophy seems to be getting through to his 7- to 17-year-old students at the Jewish community center.
“I got into competitive swimming because I saw Lenny on TV winning at the Olympics, and he became my role model,” says Michael Sheinin, a 14-year-old sophomore at Los Angeles’ Fairfax High School.
“He talks to us, not only about swimming, but about the importance of discipline and motivation,” adds Sheinin, who’ll compete in the U.S. Junior Maccabiah in July.
Aviva Brandes is 10, attends Maimonides Academy, a Los Angeles Jewish day school, and specializes in the demanding butterfly stroke.
“Lenny is very friendly, and he explains things very clearly,” she said. “There is something special about him that inspires you.”