Sydney 2000, 20 Years On – Lenny Krayzelburg … Odessa To Olympian Heights In Stars & Stripes
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the moment Lenny Krayzelburg claimed 200m backstroke victory at the Sydney Olympic Games, a triumph that added him to the pantheon of greats who lifted both the 100m and 200m crowns. Closest to him was 17-year-old USA teammate Aaron Peirsol, who would go on to claim double gold at Athens 2004 and gold in the 100m and silver in the 200m at Beijing 2008, a success story second in the ranks of the best ever backstroke swimmers to the legendary and late Roland Matthes.
Glasnost and Perestroika, those political moves on a chessboard born in the Cold War and made by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s to fight corruption and eventually pave the way to freedom of dissent across the communist bloc, were on the wind in 1988 but by then the Jewish parents of 13-year-old Lenny Krayzelburg and his younger sister were ready to set of in search of a better life.
They left their home in Ukraine that year at the start of an inspiring journey that would lead them to West Hollywood, California by March 1989.
Lenny Krayzelburg Jr worked as a lifeguard to help his family pay their way in Los Angeles. While a student at Santa Monica College, he was spotted by coach Stu Blumkin, who helped effect a move to the University of California and coach Mark Schubert. Krayzelburg became an American citizen in 1995 – and the rest is swimming history.
Born in Odessa (Soviet Union, now Ukraine as an independent nation) on September 28, 1975 as Leonid Krayzelburg, the swimmer worked hard for his success, and not only in the pool: in his early days, his parents struggling to make ends meet, Krayzelburg commuted by bus and on foot 45 minutes each way to training. He often made it home no earlier than 9.30pm.
His learning curve, both sporting and cultural was steep, his grasp of English and a new life eased by the help provided by an extensive Russian community in Los Angeles. The swimmer would later put some of his success down to the drive in his father Oleg, a man who convinced his son to press on through setbacks when he wanted to quit swimming at 14.
In 1997, Lenny Krayzelburg won the Pan Pacific titles over 100 and 200m backstroke, a warm-up for the world titles over 100m (in championship record time) and 200m at Perth, Australia, in January 1998. In the last week in August, 1999, at the Pan-Pacific Games in the pool that would host the Olympic Games in Sydney the following year, Krayzelburg defended his titles and added the 50m crown – and all three victories came his way in world-record times.
If the 50m was the first sub-25sec effort, at 24.99, then efforts of 53.60 and 1:55.97 in the 100m and 200m respectively eclipsed standards that had stood for more than seven years (to Jeff Rouse, USA, in the 100m, and Martin Lopez-Zubero, ESP, in the 200m). At the US Olympic trials in 2000, Krayzelburg was beaten by 17-year-old Aaron Peirsol in the 200m (the teenager on the way to his own Olympic high in Athens four years later). But at the Games in Sydney, he was not to be denied by anyone.
In the qualifying rounds of the 100m in Sydney, Krayzelburg was consistent and ahead, on 54.38 and 54.32 in heats and semis.
In the final, he turned in 25.99, 0.09sec up on home-hero and much-improved Matt Welsh (AUS), who had shown great form in heats and semis to present the only serious threat to the American.
On the way home, Lenny Krayzelburg increased his lead a touch to claim the crown in 53.72, an Olympic record 0.14sec inside the 1992 standard that was set in the medley relay when Jeff Rouse (USA) established the then world record a day after having been forced to settle for silver in the solo event by just 0.06sec behind Mark Tewsbury (CAN). Welsh claimed a tremendous silver in 54.07, the bronze going to Stev Theloke, who as a citizen of Karl-Marx Stadt – now Chemnitz – in Saxony was hand-picked for swimming excellence in his pre-teen years in East Germany’s efficient talent selection programme.
Over 200m three days later and two days later still as a member of the USA 4x100m medley quartet, Krayzelburg collected two more gold medals.
In the qualifying rounds of the 200m, the world record holder set Olympic records of 1:58.40 in heats and 1:57.27 in the second semi-final to establish his superiority ahead of a final that placed him back in battle with Peirsol and the man who had won silver in the 100m, Matt Welsh (AUS).
The four-length tussle was a close affair: Krayzelburg led at the 50m mark on 27.32, to 27.42 for Welsh, 27.49 for Razvan Florea (ROM) and 27.60 for Peirsol. By the half-way mark, Florea had dropped back a touch and Peirsol had squeezed past Welsh, Krayzelburg leading in 56.59, to 56.92 and 56.99. Krayzelburg sealed the title on the third length, the gap between his 1:26.05 and Peirsol now 0.98sec, with Welsh 0.17sec slower than the teenager.
Peirsol swam the fastest homecoming split – a sign of times to come – but Krayzelburg had done enough, the crown his in 1:56.76, an Olympic record 0.49sec ahead of the young pretender, with Welsh shattering his personal best for the bronze.
At one of his post-race press conferences, the media raised the issue of his nationality and Krayzelburg said:
“To be honest, I don’t feel 100 per cent American, and I don’t want to. It’s important to remember where I came from, where my heritage is from. That’s always going to be a part of me and I’ll carry it to my children and grandchildren.”
The US media pressed on, one reporter asking: “Can you expand on your American journey?” Krayzelburg said that the tale was out there and the media would surely tell it better than he could. But they wanted more, so Krayzelburg said: “I’ve never really thought about it as an American journey. It was a situation that presented itself.”
After that press conference, Krayzelburg told this author that the “Uncle Sam questions” had irritated him “a little bit”, adding:
“It’s just not the way I feel. I never have. Where I came from, where I am right now, where I’m going – it doesn’t matter. What matters is what I do in the water.”
Krayzelburg opted not to defend his world titles in 2001 in favour of racing at the Jewish Maccabiah Games in pursuit of a dream he had held since childhood. He carried the flag for the US at the opening ceremony and won the 100m backstroke and joined teammates for gold in the 4x100m medley. Not long after he had surgery on his left shoulder after sustaining an injury in a fall from a treadmill. A year out of swimming followed. In September 2003, Krayzelburg turned to coach Dave Salo to prepare for the defense of his Olympic crowns.
For his part, Peirsol said: “I think I’m getting to a point where I’m becoming more of a threat to (Lenny) and I think he knows that.” The whole world would soon know it: at the 2001 World Aquatics Championships, Peirsol claimed the global 200m title in a championship record of 1:57.13 – and became the dominant force and pace-setter on backstroke for almost a decade. His 200m World mark of 1:51.92, set in a shiny suit, remains the high bar on the clock.
Krayzelburg, meanwhile, opted not to defend his world titles in 2001 in favour of racing at the Jewish Maccabiah Games in pursuit of a dream he had held since childhood. He carried the flag for the US at the opening ceremony and won the 100m backstroke and joined teammates for gold in the 4x100m medley. Not long after he had surgery on his left shoulder after sustaining an injury in a fall from a treadmill. A year out of swimming followed. In September 2003, Krayzelburg turned to coach Dave Salo to prepare for the defense of his Olympic crowns.
The only man ever to retain both Olympic backstroke titles was Roland Matthes (GDR), in 1968 and 1972. The era of Krayzelburg and Peirsol, great as they were, did not alter that. In the wake of his 2000 victories, Krayzelburg was asked whether he would like to emulate Matthes. He replied:
“I would hope to do what he did. I enjoy challenging myself to be the best. Its a question of staying healthy, improving the way I do things. There’s lots of room for improvement.”
On the USA team once more, for the 100m, in Athens 2004, Krayzelburg touched just 0.32sec behind the new champion, and teammate, Aaron Peirsol, but in a blanket finish he missed a medal by 0.02sec.
In July 2005 Krayzelburg opened two swim schools in California. In 2019, Krayzelburg became the manager of the LA Current Pro-Team in the inaugural International Swimming League (ISL) season and is now preparing for Season 2.