By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Lenny Krayzelburg’s first few years in the United States were far from easy.
Speaking almost no English when he and his family emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1989, Krayzelburg learned the language and customs of his new country by listening and participating – struggling with each syllable, dialect and form of slang.
“You know how most people translate a new language back to their native language for understanding? I didn’t do that. I just listened to what people were saying and learned that way,” Krayzelburg said.
“My parents wanted a better life for us, and saw that opportunity in the United States. In LA, we lived in a community of immigrants, many of whom still spoke Russian, but within four years or so, I had a strong grasp of English.”
While he struggled with the language of his new country, Krayzelburg, who describes himself as a “pretty decent age group swimmer” at the time, found solace in the water. Prior to his departure, he had been a part of the Soviet sports machine, spending more than five hours each day in the pool as a hopeful to bring future medals to his country.
When he arrived in the United States, he found himself to be a good but not great swimmer in a deep, talented pool of swimmers. A self-described short, skinny kid until he experienced a significant growth spurt his senior year of high school, Krayzelburg found himself, and a path to future Olympic glory, first at Santa Monica College before transferring to the University of Southern California to work with Mark Schubert in 1994.
“I was definitely nothing special coming out of high school,” Krayzelburg said. “I think I was around 1:53-1:54 (yards) in the 200 backstroke, but I was also only about 5-6, 5-7 and pretty skinny at the time. Once I hit my growth spurt (he now stands a well-built 6-2), my swimming really started taking off.”
At USC, he blossomed into one of the best backstrokers in the world, and when he retired in 2004, largely due to lingering shoulder problems, Krayzelburg had the proud distinction of being an Olympic and world champion, winning four Olympic gold medals (two individual, two relay) at two Olympics and holding several world records. He was the USA Swimmer of the Year from 1997 to 2000.
“We trained a lot (in the Soviet Union), running and lifting weights, but it wasn’t until I came to the United States, grew and put on some weight and worked with Mark that I really started to think about a future in swimming,” said Krayzelburg, who said his family moved to the United States to escape growing anti-Semitism and a war in Afghanistan.
Even though it’s been almost a decade since he left competitive swimming (he retired shortly after the 2004 Olympics), Krayzelburg continues to make an impact in the sport. He now oversees operations and expansion opportunities for Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academies, which originated at two Jewish Community Centers in LA and has since expanded across the United States.
The notion of starting a swim academy was something that had been on Krayzelburg’s mind several years before he retired from competitive swimming. He started researching the idea in 2003 and, after sitting down with Dave Salo, who had his own swim school, decided it was a path he was interested in pursuing.
When the final shoulder injury required surgery following the 2004 Olympics, Krayzelburg said he knew it was time to walk away, and within a year or so, the plan for his swim academies came to fruition.
“I’ve always been very entrepreneurial by nature, so this was a great way for me do something with that interest and drive, while giving back to the sport that gave me so much,” said Krayzelburg, who now has academies in Detroit, Mich., Brooklyn, N.Y., Louisville, Ken., Cherry Hill and Atlantic City, N.J., West Hills, Calif., and Newton, Mass.
“I’m very involved in the day-to-day aspects of the business, and the plan is to expand into Jewish Community Centers throughout the country. Up next is Austin, Texas.”
Krayzelburg said roughly 3,000 swimmers of varying ages swim at his academies – and anyone can join the schools – youngsters don’t have to be of Jewish faith to participate. Using the SwimRight Method, his academies use the swim-float-swim technique as their foundation and focus on providing children with the knowledge of confidence and safety in and around the water. From these basic skills, academy instructors take students from beginning stages of swimming, all the way to learning all 4 strokes, freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly.
Suffice it to say that the same perseverance and drive he displayed in the water – and life – is definitely translating to success in business for Krayzelburg.
“I swam at the LA Jewish Community Center four days a week throughout high school, so they have a very special place in my heart, and this is a great way for me to give back to them as well as to swimming,” said Krayzelburg, a husband and father, who lives in Brooklyn but is on the road often. “We welcome anyone who wants to learn to swim – or learn to swim better.
“We have a lot of room for growth, and I’m fortunate to still be in the sport. It helps having someone with my swimming resume as part of the team, and I feel so blessed to be able to make a difference in the lives of kids by helping them learn to swim and become water safe.”