- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg can't go anywhere in Jerusalem without seeing his picture on a flagpole. The American is the best-known athlete at the Maccabiah Games, where he and thousands of others are competing amid escalating tension and violence.

"It's odd seeing yourself around the city," Krayzelburg said yesterday in a phone call from Israel. "A lot of people know who I am. I've been in the papers every day here."

Krayzelburg isn't worried about having such a high profile in a region wracked by Palestinian-Israeli fighting that almost led to cancellation of the games, known as the Jewish Olympics.

"When you look at the people, the way they go about their life every single day without thinking about it, you just go about your everyday business," he said. "So far it's been a very interesting experience."

The games have been overshadowed by violence during the past few days, including a suicide bombing that killed two Israelis and Israeli helicopters firing missiles at a shed in Bethlehem that killed four men.

The competition was shortened from 11 days to eight after thousands of athletes declined to participate, concerned about security issues.

Two Palestinians who were preparing a bomb only a half-mile from the stadium during opening ceremonies were killed Monday when the device exploded prematurely.

"I wasn't aware because security was absolutely amazing," said Krayzelburg, who carried the U.S. flag into the stadium. "They had 1,000 army surrounding the stadium and the only access the spectators had was to park their cars three miles away and take buses to the stadium."

Krayzelburg, who is Jewish and a native of Ukraine, said he speaks to his parents in Los Angeles three times daily. His father, Oleg, encouraged his only son to participate, while his mother, Yelena, didn't want him to go.

"My mom called a few times during the opening ceremony and a few times after I got back to make sure I got home safe," he said.

Krayzelburg, who won three gold medals in the Sydney Olympics, won the 100-meter backstroke in Maccabiah Games record time Sunday. He is skipping the 200 backstroke because of an injured shoulder, but will swim the 400 medley relay today in his final event.

"Unfortunately, the level of competition is not very high, but I'm not here to prove myself or try to see how many people I can beat," he said. "I wanted to enjoy Israel and learn about the culture and take part in this event."

Krayzelburg said the swimming venue only seats about 300 people, but it was packed when he swam Sunday.

"A lot of Israelis have come up to me and expressed their gratitude for me being here and coming at such a hard time for them," he said.

In between, he toured a Holocaust museum, the Wailing Wall and the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

"Israel really is a beautiful country," he said. "The only sad part is the conflict that is going on with the Palestinians at all times. You never know if it's going to end. That takes away from the beauty of this country."

Krayzelburg admits he's not particularly religious, although one of the reasons he made the trip was to learn about Jewish culture.

"I haven't felt any more spiritual, but I do have more pride being Jewish," he said. "Being here really shows how much Jewish people stick up for each other and represent each other and care about each other."

Krayzelburg leaves Israel tomorrow for a nine-day trip to see family and friends in his hometown of Odessa, Ukraine, where he left as a young boy with his family to escape religious persecution.

"I would be surprised if a lot of people remember who I am," he said. "I represent America now, so it's a little bit different for them."

After returning to Los Angeles, Krayzelburg will have surgery on his left shoulder July 31. His rehabilitation is expected to take six to 12 weeks.

Krayzelburg's goal is to return to form and qualify for the short-course world championships in Moscow in April.

"That would be special for me to swim in Russia for the first time," he said.

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