Lenny Krayzelburg: Born This Way
Former Olympian’s academy concentrating on a year-round learn-to-swim program for children of all ages and focusing on water safety opened its doors at Mayer Kaplan JCC in Skokie.
Since retiring from competitive swimming Lenny Krayzelburg (native of Odessa, Ukraine), four-time Olympic Gold medalist and former world record holder in swimming, has started a successful swim academy. The opening of his newest academy in partnership with the Mayer Kaplan JCC took place in Skokie, IL in mid-January.
Lenny, do you recall the first time you started taking swimming lessons?
My dad wanted me to be involved in sports at a very young age. Growing up in Odessa, we were right on the Black Sea. So I was first exposed to the sea. But ultimately every father wants his child to play soccer. My dad wasn’t the exception. The problem was that at five years old I was too young. The parent could enroll his/her child at soccer intro program only at 6 or 7. So swimming was one of the few alternatives my dad had so I can be involved in some type of athletics.
Was it love at first sight or was it a long road before you fell in love with swimming?
(laughing) It was not necessarily the love at first sight, but I did enjoy swimming. There is no question about that. I liked the environment and again, growing up in Odessa and being on the beach, it was really just a part of my life. It was fun and interesting. When I was about nine my coach back in Odessa told my dad, “Lenny was born to be a swimmer”. In fact, he said, “Besides the fact that he was to born to be a swimmer, he was born to be a backstroker”. That was what I excelled the most in my career.
Who was the biggest influence in your swimming life and career?
Of course, my dad Oleg. He really pushed and motivated me during certain stages of my life. There was a time in my teen years when I stopped having fun swimming. I really dreaded going to the swim practices and seriously considered quitting. My dad talked me out of it. He went through quite a bit of stress hearing me saying that I wanted to quit. His persistence prevailed and I continued on with swimming. As I got older, of course, my coaches played a big role in my success. I always had a great respect for them.
How difficult for you were to go away from competitive sport after the second Olympics in Athens?
To be honest with you, it was not hard at all. I knew it was inevitable. The career and life of an athlete is not that long. I was always conscious of the fact that the end would come and prepared myself for it. What also made a transition a little bit easier was the fact that I knew I wanted to get involved into learn-how-to-swim program. I knew when I retired I would have something to focus on, really dive and put my energy and dedication into.
You were 30, when you retired. Was it the right timing?
If I were healthy, I would have swum in 2008. My problem was that I went through lots of injuries after 2000. I ended up having three shoulders surgeries and a knee surgery. My health was the biggest issue. I made a short come back in 2006, but my shoulders started giving me problems again and that was a sign “don’t even bother anymore”. I do not know if there is a perfect age to retire, but I certainly think that at 30 a man is at its peak. Unfortunately, my health did not allow me to keep going.
Big sport is quite cruel. How devastating for you was to be away from swimming because of injuries?
There is always a long road to recovery. And it is definitely the toughest part to be an athlete at the highest level of sport and overcome injuries. You don’t just get to the top of your career in sport by just luck. You obviously have to have tremendous work ethic and dedication, drive and believe. So when you do not have that, you hate loosing. But when you can not do better physically and have to hold back, it is a really tough situation to handle. It was very challenging for me. I ended up injuring my shoulders, because I was not patient enough in my recovery process. I felt good and I started pushing again. That was not the smartest way to approach things. It was tough, but it was a long learning process. No question about that. I won only one medal in Athens, but a chance to make the Olympic team in 2004 (considering that I had two shoulders and a knee surgery; after Athens I had the third shoulders surgery) was very gratifying.
The idea was born in the beginning of 2000s, when I really started considering what I wanted to do after I retire. I started doing some research. I wanted to stay in sports, if possible; in swimming, in particular. Making a living out of it was the most perfect scenario. After games in Athens I approached my coach, who owned the swim program, and asked him to help me with that. He introduced me to a few other people that helped me along the way. We put a business plan together and opened our first location at the Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 2005.
Eight years later how many swimming academies do you have across the country?
The Chicago-based academy in Skokie will be the eleventh. By fall we are planning to have our program at three more locations.
Could you talk about the model of the academy? What is it focusing on?
The focus is water safety. It is important to understand that it is not really a competitive swim program where we prepare Olympians and doing a lot of training. Our mission is to make sure that every child is water safe. Drowning is one of the leading causes of the accidental death among the kids. What we are trying to do is to establish the proper technique to teach kids how to survive in the water. Then we are starting building the fundamentals of swimming and how it supposed to be done from proper body positioning to proper rotation and then following through teaching them all four swimming strokes.
Why do we need to lead active lifestyle and swim in particular?
Leading active lifestyle is important for your health. It gives you energy and positivity. I think it is extremely important to introduce healthy lifestyle to the kids at a very young age. At our academy we structure our program and our curriculum the way that you come to classes weekly or, may be, a few times a week on a year round basis. Besides the fact that you are learning swimming skills, you are also staying active.
Do you have children yourself?
I do have two twin daughters. Aleksa and Daniela are eight and a half.
Do they swim?
Of course, they know how. But they are actually more involved with rhythmic gymnastics. They go into sports! No question about that. And not just casually. I am a tough dad in this case.
You have learned the hard way, so you are passing it along, right?
Absolutely! Listen, you can not underestimate the value of understanding hard work and dedication. If you teach it in a right manner with the right positive reinforcement with the content of talking to young kids, there is a hidden message in terms of value of these characteristics.
What is the earliest age when children are able to start taking swimming lessons?
In LA we have kids as young as 10-12 weeks. We don’t discriminate on age. We take everyone. Infants have natural instinct of loving the water. They spent nine months in their mother’s womb in the water. If you get them involved young enough, you really can do so many things with them. It almost becomes a second nature to them. If you wait for a couple of years, the reaction of the kids to the water might change.
How do you feel yourself in the water? I would assume like a fish…
To be honest, I don’t swim at all anymore. I get into the pool once a month, maybe, when I really miss it. I swam for so long for so many years at such a competitive high level. So swimming is not fun any more. I only knew one way to swim and it was only for competitive purpose and just going all out. It would not be the purpose anymore. I have not been away from swimming long enough, so I don’t really miss it yet.
Are you involved in any other sports right now?
I work out quite a bit. I play a lot of tennis and soccer. I am very active. Sport is definitely a big part of my life.
From the athlete point of view, I would say that athletes should feel pretty safe. Especially after 2001 everything has changed around the world in terms of security. There will be a double or triple layer of security for any venue where athletes are going to be present. I don’t think the athletes need to worry at all about their safety. If there is any type of threat, it will be directed more to public spectators.
On a more pleasant note, what is the most memorable part of the Olympics for you?
Being in the moment that you are with the greatest athletes from all over the world. That is definitely something unique to be with the best of the best. One thing, that is so great about sport, is that you are truly judged based on the competition and the results. For me personally, winning Olympic gold medal was a great achievement! It doesn’t get any more memorable than that. Standing on the pedestal and having US anthem playing was extremely special, humbling and memorable.
Did you have mixed feelings standing on the pedestal and hearing the American national anthem playing even though you were born in Ukraine?
At the moment I did not really realize it. But I will tell you this: I was always very vocal and extremely proud about the fact I was representing the United States. I would be forever grateful to my parents that they brought me here. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I would never be able to accomplish that type of success in Ukraine. However, I have always said that I am extremely proud of my roots and where I came. I would not succeed without the Soviet foundation that was put in me when I was a kid; the work ethic that I learnt, I learnt there.
How is your Russian nowadays?
Fluent. Of course! But again I would not be able to have this type of conversation with you in Russian.
Well, would you wish anything to the readers in Russian?
Хочу всех поздравить с Новым Годом и, конечно, пожелать здоровья. Будет здоровье, будет все. Мы будем полны энергии и сможем добиться любых целей в жизни. Всегда будьте позитивными и верьте в то, что все будет хорошо. Даже в самые трудные жизненные моменты.
Напоследок: «русский» Ленни не так уж плох, как он сам думает! 😉 Воспользовавшись случаем, приглашаем всех детей и взрослых на уроки плавания четырёхкратного Олимпийского чемпиона Ленни Крайзельберга по адресу:
Mayer Kaplan JCC
5050 Church St.
Дополнительная информация на сайте: www.lennykswim.com.