Jewish immigrant swims to gold


NEW YORK, Sept. 18 (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 found gold in a pool at Sydney, Australia’s Olympic Games.

Krayzelburg set an Olympic record of 53.72 seconds in winning the 100-meter backstroke for the United States on Monday.

“It’s better than anything I’ve ever done in my life,” the Associated Press quoted Krayzelburg as saying after winning the race.

“Oh my God, there’s so much relief, you can’t even imagine,” he added. “The last 24 hours have been pretty hard. I thought I would stay pretty relaxed, but that hasn’t happened.”

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.

“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, also a favorite in the 200-meter backstroke, which was scheduled to take place Thursday.

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,” he said.

Even though he is swimming for the United States, Krayzelburg 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 affluent. 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.

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,” he said.

Krayzelburg’s 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, who has a younger sister, 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 has also shown potential for shining out of the pool, earning a degree in finance from the University of Southern California.

Described by The New York Times as “movie-star handsome,” Krayzelburg was named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in the World for 2000.

“It doesn’t matter; I can use as much soap as I want,” Krayzelburg told the magazine. “I still smell like chlorine.”

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