Lenny Krayzelburg, Operation Exodus Olympian

Lenny Krayzelburg interacts with youth at last weekend’s The Journey, Together program. (Jennifer Siegel)
Lenny Krayzelburg interacts with youth at last weekend’s The Journey, Together program.
(Jennifer Siegel)

As part of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s The Journey, Together: 25 Years after Operation Exodus celebration, the Rosenbloom Owings Mills Jewish Community Center hosted four-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg on Sunday, Oct. 13. Krayzelburg conducted a competitive swimming clinic at the JCC Aquatic Center. He also shared his life’s story, including his family’s move from the Former Soviet Union to the United States in 1988 as part of the Operation Exodus program, which raised funds to settle more than one million Soviet Jews in Israel and North America.

With soggy attire and a grin of satisfaction, Krayzelburg, 38, spoke with the JT about his experience.

JT: How was your family helped by Operation Exodus?
Being a Jewish family in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s, we dreamed of coming to the United States. In 1988, when Premier Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Jews to leave, we were fortunate to get an exit visa. But before we could move to the U.S., we had to have a sponsor. Luckily, we had family and friends in Los Angeles. So when I was 13 years old, with the help of Operation Exodus, my family and I started our new life in West Hollywood, Calif. Without Operation Exodus, our relocation to the United States would not have happened.

Were you a competitive swimmer at age 13?
I began swimming at the age of 5. My formal training began at age 9 when I was part of a club team, which in the Soviet Union was known as an Army team. I practiced five hours a day, and so my formal training began long before we came to the United States. Once we made it to Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful swimming program at the Westside Jewish Community Center. The coaches and my teammates there remained helpful to me even after I went on to the University of Southern California and then to the 2000 United States Olympic team. I am still involved in a number of projects there to this day.

Tell the JT about your swimming accomplishments.
Prior to going to the Olympics in 1999, I broke the 50-, 100- and 200-meter world records while swimming for the U.S. I also achieved the title of top backstroke swimmer in the world. That put a target on me as I headed into the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. I won three gold medals at those Games, including all of the backstroke events and a medal in the medley relays. At the end of both 1999 and 2000, I was named the USA Swimmer of the Year, a title that I am very honored to have held. Then, at the Athens Games in 2004 I was the United States Olympic swimming team captain. I won a gold medal as part of the medley relay team. Four gold medals in two Olympic Games is more than I could have ever dreamed of when I was that 13-year-old kid swimming at the Westside JCC.

What does it take to be an Olympian?
At that level everyone is very talented, but you don’t win Olympic medals with just talent. It takes hours and hours of very hard work. It also takes a team effort that includes the support of family, coaches and teammates. [And] being mentally sharp means that you have a clear focus of your goal, that you have the ability to perform at your very best under situations of high pressure and that you know your competition’s strengths and weaknesses.

What does your Judaism mean to you?
An important value of our religion is to give of yourself to the community, to pass on what you have learned to others. Teaching is a way I try to accomplish this in my own life. Family values are also important to me. It is essential to pass on the core values of our religion to our kids.

What are your impressions of JCC Aquatic Director Bill Kirkner, his staff and the program they run?
I was very impressed with how goal-oriented and organized the program is. The coaching staff is really good, focusing on the fundamentals of good technique. A quality program starts at the top, and so the success of the Aquatic Center begins with Bill’s leadership. Working with Bill has been great.


Do You Like To Swim?
Children interested in swimming can check out Lenny Krayzelburg swim academies located in Jewish Community Centers from Los Angeles to New York (lennykswim.com).

In Baltimore, swimmers can participate in classes at the JCC Aquatic Center under the direction of Bill Kirkner. Lifeguard training and lifeguard certification are also available (jcc.org/aquatics/aquatic-center/).

The USA Swimming-affiliated team of the JCC of Greater Baltimore is officially called JCC Swimming. The swim team (jccswimming.com) practices in both the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC and the Weinberg Park Heights JCC. The team won the JCC Association of North America’s Mid-Atlantic Swim League championship in 2007, 2010 and 2012. It also won the Central Maryland Swim League Division IX title in 2011 and 2012 and the Division VIII championship in 2013.

James Williams is an area freelance writer.

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