Jeff Pearlman

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Lenny Krayzelburg

#51
The owner of four Olympic gold medals and one of the great backstrokers of all time explains what it's like to swim looking up. POSTED May 23, 2012

With the 2012 Summer Olympics fast approaching, I thought it’d be cool for The Quaz to bring in someone who knows a little something about medaling.

Lenny Krayzelburg, however, isn’t just someone. The possessor of four Olympic gold medals, Krayzelburg stands as one of the great backstrokers in the history of water. He also happens to boast a most remarkable story—the son of Russian Jews, Lenny and his family left the Soviet Union for Los Angeles, seeking out a better life. His is a classic American saga … seeking something wonderful, and genuinely finding it.

Today, Lenny owns and runs the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy in Los Angeles. Here, children of all ages are taught to be safe and to love the water. It is, to be blunt, a wonderful place.

In this week’s Quaz, Lenny talks about post-Olympic adjustments; about what he thinks about while swimming and why he’d happily tour with Celine Dion.

Lenny Krayzelburg, dive on into The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So I just had this discussion with a friend of mine who played volleyball in the 1996 Summer Games, and I want to ask you about it: To me, being an ex-Olympian is tough, because it’s a very fleeting fame. I mean, football and basketball and baseball players tend to have careers that last a good while. We see them come up through college, then spend years in the pros. We get the rise, the glory, the fall. Olympians, on the other hand, tend to burst into our consciousness, then—pfft—vanish. There are exceptions, but few. Have you found this to be true? Is it hard to maintain the momentum of something that happened eight years ago? And does it even matter?

LENNY KRAYZELBURG: Yes, I’ve definitely found this to be true. Your moment is really limited to the time you’re successful at a particular races or the Games. It’s your 15 minutes of glory. I’ve found it’s really up to the individual to be able to come up with ways to keep their name out there in the public. For myself, I opened up the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy, but people have been able to keep their name out there through social causes or being on television. It’s doing whatever you can to take advantage of the success. And very few have been able to actually do that. Yes, I do think it matters to keep the momentum going if possible, otherwise you have to start from scratch, and that’s always harder.

J.P.: I am the world’s suckiest swimmer. And, therefore, I sorta loathe swimming. Please tell me what I’m missing out on. What I mean is, why do you love swimming? Besides the fact that you’re exceptionally good at it.

L.K.: What I honestly love about swimming is the freedom you have with just taking a stroke. You are in this smooth zone when you are cutting through the water. I really just block out the outside world and listen to the sound of the water as I’m cutting through it. I also love how incredibly challenging swimming is. Persevering through the challenges and continuing to improve is so rewarding. Just to drop 2/10 of a second can require years of grind, hard work and dedication to accomplish a goal like that. It’s about seeing if you can persevere through such a tough task. A normal person wouldn’t be able to understand that—particularly what I said about being able to listen to the water. It’s not just about getting to the other side in a race.

J.P.: What went through your mind during a race? I’m being serious. Are you 100 percent focused on the water? The competition? Does the mind ever drift to, “Man, I can’t wait to watch Desperate Housewives tonight? Is focus difficult to maintain?

L.K.: Honestly, when I am racing, many things go through my mind—many of which have nothing to do with swimming. It’s usually about what about I’m going to eat after the race, a conversation I might have just had with someone, or where I might be going after. My mind wanders a lot as you can see. Part of the reason, I think, is because I was always so prepared for races, and I had already done all of the training and thinking beforehand about how I was going to swim. This was done for hours each day, so by the time race day came, it was basically like operating on auto pilot.

J.P.: When the photos came out a few years ago of Michael Phelps sucking on a bong, I found the shock to be ludicrous. Here’s why: If you’re Mike Phelps, your entire existence is based not merely upon swimming, but swimming to win. It’s long, it’s arduous, it’s nonstop. I’m guessing social life gets kicked in the teeth, opportunities to party are few and far in between. So why wouldn’t a guy wanna have fun when he’s been liberated from the pool? That’s my take—I’m curious whether you agree or disagree. And if you have had similar “Just get me out of a pool and into a bar!” moments?

L.K.: In terms of Michael’s situation of being caught, I think it was really just a wrong place, wrong time kind of thing, he needed to be more conscious of his actions and surroundings. We all make mistakes, it’s how we respond afterwards. But I clearly understand and know the stress of striving to be the best, and in his case with SO MUCH EXPECTATION. It takes a toll on you and you are in a bubble just trying to become the best. Sometime all that you want to do is go out with your friends and hang out—that’s normal. You are training on a daily basis and are constantly under a lot of pressure. In order to be the best in the world at something, you have to be extremely competitive, and usually that carries over in anything that you do. Day in and day out you are not just training, you are training at your maximum pushing yourself to the limit. So sometimes all that you want is just to relax and go out with friends and not think about training, competitions, pressure to be the best. I have had many moments where I just wanted to finish competition, or long training sessions, and just get out of that bubble and relax.

J.P.: In 2001 you skipped the World Championships to swim in the Maccabiah Games. As a Jew, I applauded you. How hard was that decision, and was it worth it? And, while we’re on the topic, how important is Judaism to you? What’s it mean to you to be a Jew?

L.K.: Judaism is very important to me. I am very proud to be a Jew and it’s important for me to talk about my faith and my connection to the Jewish Community. In 2001, I made a big decision to forego the World Championships. It is an important part of being Jewish to visit Israel and I had never been before. I was trying to learn more about my heritage and the wonderful values our culture teaches us. I felt it was very important for me to be there. Participating in the Maccabiah Games was a memorable experience and now I continue to talk about Judaism and how proud I am.

I recently spoke at TribeFest, a conference back in March run by The Jewish Federations of North America, that is focused on getting the younger generation more involved with Judaism and Jewish culture. It was about trying to get them to understand the values that our culture teaches us and about trying to make an impact on others. It was one of the reasons I wanted to participate in TribeFest. It’s really important to engage the younger generation about the importance of what they’re doing and the social causes they’re trying to get behind that are Jewish-based. We need them to take the leadership role so they can learn to lead others and so on. My experience at TribeFest was to share my story and pass along a good message.

It was very fun being at TribeFest. I was quite surprised—it was so big and had so many people. The fact that it was in Vegas could have been a distraction, but it was good to see how everyone was rallying in the morning to go to all of the activities and sessions. I was very impressed they were so involved. It was really good to see.

J.P.: In the 2004 Athens Games you missed out on a medal in the 100 meters by 2/100 of a second. In other words, the time it took me to type this period. That’s crazy. Beyond crazy. How does a person come to terms with that? Is it easy to find peace? And, I’m interested, is it easier to accept missing out by 2/100 of a second, or by a wide margin?

L.K.: How does a person come to terms with that? I don’t think you ever do. It was too close for me to be forever at peace with not winning a medal. I have always been a realist though and have realized there was nothing I could do. I needed to move forward. I know I gave it my everything and had no regrets. Also, knowing that I had already won three gold medals in previous Olympics did help. It may have made it a little easier to afford the disappointment. I don’t know how I would have felt had I not won any medals in the past. Now that years have passed since 2004 Olympics I can tell you that it really does not matter how close or how wide the margin to getting a medal was, I simply got fourth place and that’s it.

J.P.: I love comebacks. I think, primarily, because I just turned 40, and comebacks make me feel like age is bullshit. Hence, Lenny, when are you coming back? Seriously, does it enter your mind? And why does aging take such a toll on speed? Like, what specifically makes it impossible for a 50-year-old in great condition to swim like he did at 25?

L.K.: Ha, no, I am not coming back. It’s too late and I’m too old. I’m not 40, but the sport has moved on and I have moved on from the sport. I have other interests in life that I enjoy and I’m busy enough that I actually wouldn’t be able to commit to the time to prepare for the Olympic games. Yes, absolutely not happening.

As for aging taking a toll on speed—it takes longer for your body to recover from the stress and training. Your fast twitch muscles are not as fast. Aging just affects all of the functions of the body. Obviously Dara Torres is an exception. She was able to win even at 40, but there are always exceptions.

J.P.: You operate the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy. Which is really cool. However, I wonder what it’s like for you to help people learn swimming. What I mean is, the great Ted Williams was an awful baseball manager, because he couldn’t relate with the .230 hitter. Mike Singletary, all-time great linebacker, was a miserable head coach in the NFL, probably because he wanted what the modern player wouldn’t give. On and on, there are myriad stories of greats who couldn’t empathize with mortals. Is this at all a problem with you? Why or why not?

L.K.: I personally do not teach actually. I do all of the work for the Academy from an administrative and ownership standpoint. I believe the teachers I hire, though, are better teachers than I would be. They have more patience and are more thorough than I could ever be with a 4, 5 or 6 year old. I can relate to kids well—I have that quality—but patience and consistency takes a long time. It’s an important quality I don’t know I would be able to have. So, I resorted to only an administrative role in the business, along with leading my staff.

People do ask me all of the time why I never got into coaching. I think it’s because I would not expect from my swimmers what I expected of myself. Each person thinks in their way and acts in their own way. Each person has their own challenges and motivates themselves in different ways. I always gave 100 percent from myself and nothing short of that. I didn’t understand any other way when I swam. I think if I ended up coaching it would be extremely frustrating if someone wasn’t giving 100 percent, and I wouldn’t enjoy it.

J.P.: Do you ever tire of your narrative? What I mean is, I’m sure you’ve told your story (Russia … came to LA … poor … etc) 8 trillion times. It’s a fascinating story, and an amazing testament to you and your family. So I’m by no means mocking it. I’m just wondering if you’re ever like, “OK … OK—enough …” Or are some things simply worth telling?

L.K.: Yes! Good question. My close friends have actually asked me this number of times. At times, you think people would know it. Obviously in certain situations and interviews, you have to go back to it. Though it is apart of me and it is what made me who I am today. The journey I went through helped me to achieve the success I was able to achieve. I guess I will always have to talk about it because that’s the foundation of who I am and what I’ve been able to accomplish.

J.P.: I grew up in the same neck of the woods as Rick Carey, the winner of three gold medals in the backstroke at the 1984 Los Angeles games. Rick created something of a stir (actually, more of an outcry) when he won gold in the 200m backstroke, but openly pouted because he didn’t break his own world record. The guy was slammed, and slammed again. I’ve never asked a competitor about this, but I’ve always wanted to. Lenny, do you get it? Like, is gold sometimes not enough? Is the drive greater for personal betterment than a medal? Or was he just being bratty?

L.K.: It’s interesting because in 1998, I touched the wall first and won at the World Championships, and I guess my emotions exemplified extreme disappointment that I had won. My coach pulled me aside and actually pointing to when Rick did that and his facial expressions. He said to me, “Don’t you ever do that again. Do you know how many people would love to be in your position, no matter what the time is?” He explained that it was disrespect to the sport and the people watching. I took that to heart. From then on, I never ever showed my negative emotions. In other races when I wasn’t happy, I never showed it in public. I’ve also learned it’s disrespectful to my competitors—you beat them and you’re not happy about your times. I have tremendous respect for everyone I race with what they bring to the table with their talent and experience.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LENNY KRAYZELBURG:

• You seem like an absolute natural for reality TV. Dancing with the Stars, Celeb Apprentice, etc, etc. Any interest? Any offers?: I would have some interest, but no offers yet … Not sure about Dancing with the Stars, but it would be interesting to be on Celebrity Apprentice.

• Rank in order (favorite to least favorite): The smell of chlorine, Celine Dion, Superman II, matzo farfel, Tony Danza, Matt Gribble, Tim Tebow, Lady Gaga, your cell phone, Tulsa, Cary Grant.: Smell of chlorine, cell phone, Tim Tebow, Celine Dion, Matzo Farfel, Lady Gaga, Cary Grant, Tony Danza, Superman II, Matt Gribble and Tulsa.

• List the different ways have you seen your last name spelled?: They forget the Y (Krazelburg) or end with “berg” instead of “burg.” Nothing other than that, though.

• Five best movies you’ve ever seen?: No particular order—Once Upon a Time in America, Scarface, The Hangover, The Godfather and Goodfellas.

• Celine Dion calls and wants you to play a Jack Dawson in the Las Vegas Aquatic Opera theatrical version of Titanic: Jewel of the Ocean. Pay’s $10,000 per show. You in?: Yes! It has to do with the water and saving someone!

• The winner of the 2012 presidential election will be?: Obama

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall: Ah, I don’t think about that. I don’t like that thought going through my head!

• The movie Swimfan was on HBO the other day. Have you ever had a sexy stalker try and make love to you in a pool? If so, what’s your secret?: I am not sure fortunately or unfortunately but I never had a sexy stalker. And if there was someone I probably was too fast in the pool for her to even try to stalk me.

• Best place (nobody knows about) to eat in Los Angeles: Eh, everyone knows about this, but I like Astro Burger a lot.

• You vs. Michael Phelps in an MMA fight. What happens?: I’ve got some pride so I’ll pick myself as the winner in this fight. I’m too competitive. I wouldn’t bet against myself.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life