Indianapolis Lenny Krayzelburg's desire to return to the medal stand is the reason he still welcomes the early wake-up calls and grueling grind of a world-class swimmer.
At 28, Krayzelburg is convinced he can reclaim his title as the world's best backstroker before retiring -- despite being beset by injuries since winning gold at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
"If I could win this year, it would mean even more than it did in Sydney," he said.
Four years ago, there were no doubts. Krayzelburg, a Russian emigrant, went to Sydney as America's golden boy. He returned as a cover boy with three gold medals, joining Rick Carey and John Naber as the only Americans to sweep the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes.
Since then, however, Krayzelburg has battled more injuries than swimmers.
Twice he needed surgery on his left shoulder. He also tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while running on a treadmill and had reconstructive surgery for that, too.
The injuries limited his time in the pool, resulting in slower times and a slip in the world rankings. Aaron Peirsol and Michael Phelps have now supplanted Krayzelburg as America's favorites in the backstroke at Athens.
His colleagues still see a contender in the swimmer who finished last year with the world's fourth-fastest time in the 100.
"It goes to show you the competitor and athlete he really is," Olympic medalist Neil Walker said. "I think he'll be just as good, or better, than he was in 2000. He's incredible."
While Krayzelburg believes he can recapture his form in time for the Athens Games in August, he knows he's not the same swimmer who dominated the sport in 1999 and 2000.
The lack of strength in his left shoulder has limited him to one event -- the 100 backstroke. It also forced him to consider retirement.
He returned to the pool this year with a new club team, a new training program and a renewed passion to bring home a fourth gold medal. While he continues to swim countless laps, his new coach has changed the routine to focus less on aerobics and more on sprints.
But at July's U.S. Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif., Krayzelburg will face what may be the world's deepest class of backstrokers:
- Peirsol broke Krayzelburg's world record in the 200 backstroke in 2002 and finished last year ranked No. 1 in the 100.
- Phelps already has proven he can beat Krayzelburg and could enter the 100 and 200 to give him a shot at Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics.
- Walker is a versatile swimmer who still ranks among the world's top 20 in the 100 as he tries to qualify for his second straight Olympics.
- Randall Bal emerged as a threat last year by ranking sixth in the world in the 100.
- Jeff Rouse, the 1996 Olympic champion in the 100 backstroke, is attempting his own comeback at age 34 after a nearly six-year absence.
The difference, Krayzelburg and Rouse believe, is experience. In 15 chances to medal at international events, Krayzelburg has won 13 golds and two silvers.
"It would be easy to look at Lenny's times and shoulder situation and say he's not where he was," Rouse said. "But I still consider him a favorite to make the Olympic team."
Krayzelburg considers himself an underdog this year, a role he seems to relish. He's more relaxed and has embraced the changes that he thought he needed to make years ago.
"I don't think I have anything to prove to anyone other than myself," he said. "I've accomplished everything I wanted to in the sport, so I'm just enjoying it."