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An American Tale

Chances are Krayzelburg would not have become an elite swimmer had he stayed in Ukraine. Still, he says he owes a debt of gratitude to Soviet system as well as U.S.

September 19, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

SYDNEY, Australia — Lenny Krayzelburg is on top of the world, standing on the highest pedestal of the medals podium at the Summer Olympics, listening to the "Star-Spangled Banner" and thinking about all the sacrifices his parents made--moving from Ukraine 11 years ago to Studio City to escape religious persecution and give their children more opportunities. Like the one he had Monday night at the Sydney International Aquatic Center.

As I watch him I'm thinking about where he would have been at that moment if his parents had remained in Ukraine.

That's the question I posed later to a colleague and longtime friend, Vladimir Gheskin, the editor of Moscow's Sport Express newspaper. The first time I met him was in 1983 in Richfield, Ohio. There to cover an indoor track meet, he knocked on the door of my hotel room and asked if I would join him for a drink. It was 9 a.m. on a Sunday, and as I vividly recall, he was upset when he learned that the bar wasn't open. I didn't know if that said more about him or Richfield, Ohio.

"Hmmm, Lenny," Gheskin said, giving my question for this day some thought. "I believe Lenny Krayzelburg, if he had stayed in Odessa, would today be working in the restaurant that his father owned."

Not swimming? Not competing in the Olympics? Not winning a gold medal?

"No, sadly, I don't think he would be doing any of that," Gheskin said.

It wouldn't have been impossible. Born in Odessa, Krayzelburg could have competed for Ukraine. A Ukrainian woman, Yana Klochkova, won the gold medal Saturday in the 400-meter individual medley.

But, Gheskin said, most Ukrainians from Odessa are of Russian heritage, and, because the sports school that recruited Krayzelburg when he was 9 and gave him his swimming foundation was funded by the Red Army, he probably would have continued in the Russian system after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In that case, Gheskin said, Krayzelburg probably would have gone down with the once-proud Russian program, which, in the 1980s and early '90s, produced some of the world's best swimmers, including Vladimir Salnikov and Alexander Popov.

Now, many of the best Russian coaches, like many of the best musicians, scientists and other professionals whose talents are valued in the rest of the world, have left. One of them, Gennady Touretsky, moved to Australia, where he coaches Michael Klim, who set the 100-meter freestyle world record Saturday in the Aussies' stunning relay victory over the United States.

Coaches who remained in Russia, Gheskin said, earn $50 a month (U.S.) from the federation.

"The coach of our 1988 Olympic team, he washes windows so that he can feed his family," Gheskin said. "The coach of the 1992 team stocks shelves in a department store."


Gheskin could be right. Krayzelburg might have been working in the family restaurant instead of swimming if the family had remained in Ukraine. But it could have been worse. His father, Oleg, feared that his son would eventually be drafted into the Russian army to fight in Afghanistan.

That was one reason he moved his family to the United States. Another was that, as Jews, he didn't believe it would ever be possible to rise above the discrimination against them in Ukraine.

So Oleg took his family to Southern California, where he became a cook at a hospital--he's now a restaurant chef--and his wife, Yelena, became a technician for a pharmacy. Krayzelburg, who was 13 at the time, took a city bus for 45 minutes and then walked eight blocks each day to swim for the Santa Monica Swim Club. He almost quit several times because his school, Fairfax High, didn't have a swim team, but his father persuaded him to persevere, and, after a detour as a water polo player at Santa Monica City College, he earned a swim scholarship to USC.

At the news conference Monday after Krayzelburg won the 100-meter backstroke, Gheskin asked the swimmer if he believes he owes any of his success to the Soviet system.

"Absolutely," Krayzelburg, 24, said. "I believe growing up in the Soviet sports system under the communist government played a big part in who I am today as a person and as an athlete. I learned things that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Dedication to my career is something I learned when I was 8 years old."

Later, poolside again, he elaborated.

"Being challenged at a young age . . . I think, in the States, people are afraid to challenge kids at a young age. They kind of build them up very slowly. Back in Russia, we were challenged at 9 years old. You had no choice whether to accept or give it up."

But, he added, he also owes a debt of gratitude to the United States.

"America," he said, "is the land of opportunities. It's up to you to take advantage of them."

Asked if he could have had those opportunities if he had stayed in Ukraine, he said, "No, not after the communist system fell apart, because everything fell apart. There is no system now."


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