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Last Splash

Lenny Krayzelburg, 28 and aching after three surgeries, gathers himself for one more run at Olympic glory

June 09, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Hard work used to be the answer to almost every problem in the pool, an ideal way for Lenny Krayzelburg to churn through doubts and fears.

It lifted him through a remarkable journey -- from Odessa to the Olympics, the story of a courageous family leaving Ukraine for a better life in the United States and finding gold at the end of the athletic rainbow in 2000.

Almost four years after winning three gold medals at the Sydney Olympics -- two individual in the backstroke and one in the medley relay -- the problem-solving formula has changed for Krayzelburg. It simply had to.

No longer could hard work provide all the answers, not after one knee surgery and two shoulder operations. Not with a still-achy left shoulder not fully repaired after the second surgical procedure.

And in the grueling and often-frustrating pursuit of one more trip to the Olympics, the introspective Krayzelburg has found himself asking the one-word question: Why?

"Many times this year it has crossed my mind, maybe I need to stop," he said after a setback in March. "It's been more than one thought this past week or so." For someone who has been so strong in the water, it was unsettling for Krayzelburg to bypass weight training, out of deference to the shoulder, and primarily rely on technique.

But as Krayzelburg spoke from the stands along the pool at Soka University in Aliso Viejo that day, not far off in the distance was a board at the Irvine Novaquatics training facility showing two numbers: 99 days to the Olympic trials, 136 until the Olympics.

"There's still a bright side," he said. "On one hand, I'm not afraid to move on. On the other hand, I don't want to let it go. If I can just find that window. If I can tolerate the pain and I can stay healthy, there's no question I can go a high-53 [seconds], and that's going to compete for a gold medal."

The high-53 was in reference to the 100-meter backstroke. Though Krayzelburg is the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, the longer distance had to be tossed aside because of the shoulder.

If all goes well, he'll have to endure the pain of six races -- the prelims, semifinals and final at the Olympic trials in Long Beach, and the same three at the Olympics in Athens. The trials start July 7, and Krayzelburg is using the Janet Evans Invitational this week in Long Beach as the final tuneup.

"When it gets down to trials, he's going to be fit enough, strong enough," said his coach, Dave Salo of the Novaquatics. "He's going to have to get through three swims, but I think he can. At that point, a lot of his experience is going to come through.

"He doesn't have any undue pressure on him like he did in 2000. I think he can go into this and relax and approach it from that standpoint. Our intent is to be the gold medalist in the 100 backstroke."

For that to happen it would require, among other things, knocking off former Salo protege Aaron Peirsol, the world champion in the 100 and 200 backstrokes and world-record holder in the 200. Four years ago, Krayzelburg, then coached by Mark Schubert of USC, was the man to beat in both races; Peirsol was the challenger.

Peirsol has been attending the University of Texas, and last year Krayzelburg moved to Orange County, leaving his longtime mentor Schubert.

Schubert said all the right things and wished Krayzelburg well, but he admitted recently being surprised by the decision. The coach-swimmer relationship is often so close, it's almost like a divorce when one ends the partnership.

Krayzelburg said the swimmers at USC were getting younger and younger. "Or was it me getting older?" he said, smiling.

There was a generational thing. Krayzelburg is 28. He will be getting married in the fall, instead of worrying about writing term papers and final exams. On top of the age gap, he also felt the need for a new approach to training.

"There was no question I wasn't going anywhere," he said. "I needed to move on. I contemplated it for a while. I wasn't getting any younger, but was doing the same type of training. You can't expect to train, at 18 and 27, the same way."

He was concerned about Salo's reaction to his inquiry about joining the Novas. As a back-up plan, he considered moving to Switzerland to work with Russian sprint star Alexander Popov and his famed coach, Gennadi Touretski. But Krayzelburg needn't have worried.

"I wasn't sure how Dave was going to take it because Aaron has been his prodigy," Krayzelburg said. "Everything Aaron is in swimming was because of Dave. I wasn't sure how Dave was going to react to me coming here. I figured Aaron would not have a problem."

He was right. Peirsol is the definition of laid-back.

"I think it's the best thing Lenny could have done," Peirsol said. "Sometimes you need a change and the atmosphere with Dave and the Novaquatics is the best. I'm seeing a smile on Lenny's face and when I talk to him I can tell he's really enjoying things again. I think he might have lost some of that enjoyment."

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