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An American Tale

Swimming: Ukrainian-born Krayzelburg wins 100 backstroke to fulfill dream of Olympic gold; Quann beats Heyns in 100 breaststroke. Dutchman defeats Thorpe.


SYDNEY, Australia — The longest 53.72 seconds was practically a five-part miniseries for one stressed-out family. There were fears and tears, tension and turmoil and, finally, success.

In short, Lenny Krayzelburg's Olympic victory in the 100-meter backstroke, one of two gold medals won by U.S. swimmers Monday night, was something of a microcosm of his family's brave journey from Odessa, Ukraine, to Studio City in 1989. The search for a new life was filled with doubts about the unknown, which could also be said of his quest for an Olympic gold medal.

The proximity to his lifelong goal--the gold--unnerved the usually unflappable Krayzelburg in the hours before his race. A sound sleep escaped him, and he couldn't force himself to eat lunch. But he hid his turmoil so well that his longtime coach, Mark Schubert of USC and the national team, thought Krayzelburg was too relaxed.

His parents, Oleg and Yelena, were equally unsettled and emotional at the Sydney International Aquatic Center. Oleg shed tears and Yelena tried to stay strong. Their daughter Marsha's voice was raw and raspy by the end of the race.

Oleg Krayzelburg, a noted perfectionist, has a way of surprising his son, and he did it again after Lenny's victory, in an Olympic-record time of 53.72. Australian Matt Welsh was second in 54.07. American Jeff Rouse had set the previous Olympic record of 53.86 in 1992.

This time, there were no words or gestures from the father about the lack of a world record when the family celebrated the gold-medal victory.

"They were crying," Lenny Krayzelburg said of his parents. "Actually my dad said, 'We can go home now.' I was quite surprised.

"But the job is not done yet. In our sport you are judged whether you win or lose the gold medal. It doesn't matter what other accomplishments you have. I've finally achieved that and now it's pretty complete. There are going to be generations that are faster than us. By winning a gold medal, you are going into history books."

There he will join 16-year-old Megan Quann of Puyallup, Wash., who won the 100 breaststroke, in 1:07.05, breaking her American record. Another youngster, 15-year-old Leisel Jones of Australia, won the silver in 1:07.49. Defending Olympic champion and world-record holder Penny Heyns of South Africa, who has struggled with her form this year, took third, going 1:07.55.

Quann fulfilled her promise--made at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis--that Heyns "was going down," but made it a point to congratulate her rival, who has also served as an inspiration.

"Because she's been pushing me so hard," Quann said. "Even though she doesn't train with me, she is who I see in the pool. It's her that I see in my mind and it's her that I see every day in practice."

That was hardly the biggest surprise, however. Two days ago, 17-year-old Australian Ian Thorpe was the world-record holder in the 200 freestyle and he will leave the Sydney Olympics without the world record or a gold medal in that event. Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands tied the world record he set Sunday in the semifinals, 1:45.35, and took out Thorpe, who finished second in 1:45.83, essentially taking the air out of the building.

Most of the sellout crowd of 17,500--except for a small group of Dutch supporters--had been poised to celebrate another Thorpe coronation. Already, he had won a gold medal in the 400 freestyle and 400 freestyle relay.

Because of his world-record swim and previous victories against Russian star Alexander Popov in the 50 and 100, Van Den Hoogenband had been considered a threat to Thorpe but surely not a gold-medal winner, at least in the minds of Australians.

"In the last 25 meters, I was going full out," Van Den Hoogenband said. "Suddenly, I thought, 'God, he's not going to pass me.' I wanted it so badly. It's unbelievable I won."

The buildup to Thorpe vs. Van Den Hoogenband had been considerable after the Dutch swimmer seized the world record. Newspapers featuring the two swimmers on the front page were being sold on the streets of Sydney in the hours before the race.

They were one-two at the 100-meter mark--with Van Den Hoogenband leading--and they were even making the last turn into the final 50, both at 1:18.21. The stretch duel had the crowd roaring, expecting a winning surge by Thorpe. Instead the Dutch swimmer had the better finishing kick.

"I was pretty flat tonight," Thorpe said. "I gave it my all in that race. It was a real privilege to swim in that race. I would have liked to have gone a little faster, but you don't always get your own way.

"I'm not going to win every race. It just can't happen."

The outcome also shook Krayzelburg a bit. Thorpe was considered even more of a lock in his events than Krayzelburg.

"You see the favorites can go down too," Krayzelburg said. "It kind of hit home, that anything can happen at the Olympic Games. I really had a hard time going to bed and the whole day today.

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