One of the chosen ones in 1984 was a Russian boy from Odessa who showed a knack for the backstroke. Soviet officials selected Lenny Krayzelburg, then age 9, for government-sponsored 5 1/4-hour daily training sessions with about 40 other young swimmers. His coach considered Krayzelburg an Olympic prospect.
By the time he was 15, Krayzelburg's life and dreams changed completely. In 1989, his family emigrated to West Hollywood, Calif., to escape the former Soviet Union's war with Afghanistan. Through his mid-teens, Krayzelburg swam just a few hours a week at a local Jewish community center. Life was hard for his family. He earned money by helping maintain the community center pool and working as a lifeguard.
"I'm a very realistic person," Krayzelburg said. "I knew with what I had, I couldn't make the Olympic Games. I knew there was no way."
There was, it now seems, a way. It required hunting down a junior college coach and begging him for a place on his swimming team. It required starting over--or restarting Krayzelburg's career--at 18. It required a re-dedication to what Krayzelburg always has done best: the backstroke.
Krayzelburg is now 24, and once again, his life has been flipped upside down. Swimming for the United States, Krayzelburg set three world records and won three gold medals at the prestigious Pan Pacific Championships this summer. He will be the cynosure of this week's international swimming World Cup, which takes place Wednesday and Thursday at the University of Maryland.
The swimming gear company Speedo is so certain Krayzelburg will win a gold medal--or multiple gold medals--at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney that company officials made him the richest non-Olympian they ever sponsored when they gave him a six-figure contract last year.
"My success right now through swimming," Krayzelburg said by phone last week, "is payback for what my parents did 11 years ago."
Eleven years ago, Oleg and Yelena Krayzelburg decided it was time to leave Odessa, now located within Ukraine's boundaries. Oleg managed a government-owned coffee shop. Yelena worked as an accountant at a shoe factory. They worried about their children's future. Besides Lenny, they also have a daughter, Marsha, now 21.
"Russia has a lot of problems," Yelena said last week. "We are Jewish, and they have discrimination. [And] we were afraid Lenny would be supposed to go to the Russian Army."
When they arrived in West Hollywood, they lived for two weeks with friends from Russia. None of the Krayzelburgs spoke a word of English. Oleg Krayzelburg needed nine months to find work as a cook at a hospital. Yelena eventually found work at the same hospital as a technician in the pharmacy.
With the family's money tight, friends negotiated a year of pool time at no cost for Lenny, then 14, at a training center in Mission Viejo. But the pool was so far away, Lenny had to take an hour-long bus ride each way. He soon decided to train at the humble facilities at the local Jewish community center.
By the time he reached his senior year at Fairfax High, Krayzelburg was worried. There was no swim team at the school. He needed a college scholarship to continue his education. Yet he had not received a single reply from any of the college coaches to whom he had sent personal information.
During the fall of his senior year, he stopped by the athletic department of Santa Monica City College.
Krayzelburg informed the coach there, Stu Blumkin, that he was a student at Fairfax High who wanted to swim collegiately.
"I thought, 'They don't even have a swim team,' " Blumkin said with a laugh. "I thought to myself, 'Oh, this guy's not too fast.' "
Krayzelburg proved otherwise and began training with Blumkin's team. Just more than a year later, he broke the junior college U.S. record in the 200-yard backstroke. Blumkin called Mark Schubert, the University of Southern California coach who will coach the 2000 Olympic team, and told him about Krayzelburg. Once Schubert saw Krayzelburg swim, he offered him a college scholarship.
"I was the happiest person," Krayzelburg said. "Everything pretty much took off. I started doing what I had been doing as a kid. I started to believe in myself."
Krayzelburg's junior year at USC in 1997 proved to be a breakthrough. He won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke at the U.S. summer nationals and at the Pan Pac Championships. By 1998, he was a double world champion.
Early this year, he wrote down a list of goals. That list included breaking the world records for the 50-, the 100- and the 200-meter backstroke. His parents watched from the stands when he set all of those records in Sydney at the Pan Pac Championships.
"Now it is believable," Yelena Krayzelburg said about the possibility of her son going to the 2000 Olympics. "When he is so good, three-time world record holder, now it is believable. I can't explain what it will be for us both, me and my husband. It is very important for us. In Sydney, we were so excited, we were both crying."
FINA Swimming World Cup
When: Wednesday and Thursday.
Where: The University of Maryland Campus Recreation Center Natatorium, College Park.
Who: Americans Lenny Krayzelburg, Jenny Thompson, Tom Dolan, Dara Torres and Ed Moses, as well as international stars from 38 countries, including China's Chen Yan, Britain's James Hickman and Finland's Jani Sievinen.
Tickets: All 800 seats for the 6:30 p.m. finals on both nights are sold out. Tickets ($5 adults, $3 children) still remain for the daily preliminaries at 10:30 a.m., and are available by calling 410-433-8300.