Swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg is a hero at the Westside Jewish Community Center, and not just because he won four Olympic gold medals for the United States.
The 29-year-old athlete has donated more than $100,000 to renovate the center's indoor pool, where he once worked as a lifeguard and swam for the center's team. The pool has been closed for several years and the center itself is emerging from a fight for its life.
Lani Daniels, the center's director of administration, said Krayzelburg's gift came as a complete surprise: "He was like an angel who just showed up and said, 'I want to help you open the pool.' "
The champion backstroker plans to start a swim school there.
As a 13-year-old in 1990, Krayzelburg was a new immigrant from what is now Ukraine when he began visiting the Jewish center on Olympic Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue. He remembers it as a "good place that had something to do for everyone."
In their hometown of Odessa, the Krayzelburgs knew they were Jewish but didn't practice their religion. Krayzelburg went to his first Purim party at the center, but the big draw was the 75-foot by 30-foot pool.
"I was a pretty serious swimmer already," said Krayzelburg, who caught the eye of coaches in the then-Soviet Union when he was 9 years old. "But in those days, I was average, just average."
At the Westside center he trained with coach Steve Becker. After graduation from Fairfax High School, he went to Santa Monica College, where he won the state junior college title.
He transferred to USC, where he began to win national and world titles. He set three world records in the backstroke in 1999, won three gold medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and a fourth as part of the medley relay team in Athens in 2004.
"This is his dream, to reopen the pool," said Brian Greene, the center's executive director. "He's going to run his own swim school here."
Daniels said the center "had been led to believe that the pool was beyond repair. That turned out not to be the case. What was outmoded was all the filtering and heating equipment."
That has now been replaced, thanks to Krayzelburg. Reopening is scheduled for Tuesday.
"It's a great facility," Krayzelburg said of the pool, which is five lanes wide and as much as 10 feet deep. He is at the center almost every day making sure the renovation stays on schedule.
Reopening the pool could be the turning point for the facility in its fight to come back from the crisis that roiled all seven Los Angeles-area Jewish centers in 2001.
After years of declining enrollments and shrinking budgets, the umbrella organization that owned the centers -- the Jewish Community Centers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles -- announced that it had a deficit of $2.8 million and would have to sell off some of the facilities.
Five centers were slated for closure. Late in 2001, supporters of the Westside center, which was on the list, raised $113,000 to keep its doors open. Today the center is owned by the association but operates independently and receives support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the United Way, Greene said.
In 2003, the center unveiled ambitious renovation plans and announced that it needed $14 million. To date, it has raised more than $6 million, and some initial work has been done, Greene said.
"We weathered the storm and came out OK," Greene said. "Now it's a matter of rebuilding, not just the building, which we are in the process of doing, but rebuilding our program and rebuilding our credibility in the community."
The Silver Lake-Los Feliz Jewish Community Center became an independent organization and recently was able to purchase its building with financial help from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles through Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno, who played basketball there as a youngster.
But several other Jewish community centers have closed or are for sale.
The Westside center's original architect was Sidney Eisenshtat of Los Angeles, who died March 1 at the age of 90. Eisenshtat, noted for minimally decorated, bright and airy spaces, designed synagogues, schools and banks as well as community centers.
Michael Lehrer of Lehrer Architects in Los Feliz, who has been hired to design the Westside center's renovation, said that one of the building's strengths is its marriage of indoors and outdoors in areas such as the light-filled pool, which is flanked by large windows.
"When we looked at it more carefully, we realized it was really an incredible pool. It has some fine mosaic work in it," said Lehrer, whose plan for remodeling the center respects its "wonderful bones."
"We're trying to be true to the original," Lehrer said. "It's a quintessential, optimistic Southern California complex."
The Westside Jewish center of Krayzelburg's younger days was "very family-oriented," the athlete recalled. Dedicated in 1954, the mid-century modern building was a beacon for the surrounding community. Because of it, Krayzelburg said, "there was always a place to go after school."