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U.S. Olympic team mirrors its country

Just as immigrants fueled America's growth, they have strengthened its presence at the Games.

They are red, white and true Americans. Proud to display the US-of-A on their uniforms and wear their hearts on their sleeves. When the national anthem is played, they will sing as loudly as the next athlete.

They just need subtitles to help with the lyrics.

Welcome to the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, which has an immigration line nearly as long as the chow line.

Lenny Krayzelburg, the gold-medal favorite in the backstroke, is from the Ukraine. Diver Mark Ruiz was born in Puerto Rico. Synchronized swimmer Anna Kozlova hails from Russia. From badminton to basketball, the United States has stocked its shelves with the latest Olympic imports.

Their stories vary, but they seem to share common themes of escape and opportunity.

"I can remember my grandfather talking about the United States as the greatest place to live," said Matt Ghaffari, a native of Iran who wrestled for the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 and '96 but failed to qualify this year.

"When I was 10 years old, I knew the Statue of Liberty said give us your poor, give us your sick, give us your tired. In this country, you have the opportunity to do whatever you want. When my grandfather decided to move, all seven of his sons came to America because they wanted their children to have a better life."

In a sense, the Olympic team is no different from the country it represents. America was built on the strength of immigrants, and the Olympic team has been bolstered by athletes from other countries.

Some were running from something in their homeland. Some were running toward something in their adopted country. Either way, they do not seem to take for granted the freedoms they now share.

Ruiz, 21, was the only U.S. diver to qualify in springboard and platform this year, but he needed a strong performance on his final trials dive to qualify in springboard. Before the trials, he was asked if it would not have been easier to compete for Puerto Rico, where he would have had no trouble making the team.

(Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but the commonwealth fields an Olympic team because of its status as a self-governing territory of the United States.)

"I am from Puerto Rico, and I'm proud of that," Ruiz said. "But I love the U.S. I love representing this country. It's always been a dream of mine to represent the United States. I wouldn't (compete for Puerto Rico) even if I didn't make the U.S. team. This is my home now."

Ruiz was 12 when he and his mother moved to Orlando. Lydia Ruiz left her beauty salon behind but moved at the behest of a diving coach in Puerto Rico who convinced her Mark had the potential for greatness with the proper training in the States.

"She took a big risk for me," Ruiz said. "I owe her everything."

Krayzelburg, 24, was just about the same age as Ruiz when his parents brought him to Los Angeles from the former Soviet Union. Except they were not too concerned about Lenny's fledgling swimming career.

They fled a prevailing anti-Semitic atmosphere in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. They feared Lenny and older sister, Marsha, would never get the opportunity to excel because they are Jewish. And they worried Lenny would one day end up in a military conflict like Afghanistan.

The Krayzelburgs left in late 1988 and landed in Rome for a short time. They eventually emigrated to Los Angeles and a predominantly Russian neighborhood near West Hollywood.

"You would walk into a grocery store and be amazed that they had everything you could possibly want," Krayzelburg said. "In Russia, we would stand in line for three hours for gas or bread. When my mom saw those grocery stores, the fresh fruit, she started crying. It was a very emotional time for all of us."

Ruiz and Krayzelburg were young enough when they arrived that they had time to become U.S. citizens before their athletic careers took off. Kozlova, 27, is a different story. She competed for Russia in the 1992 Olympics and was considered one of the top synchronized swimmers in the world when she moved to the United States.

She arrived in 1993 with her duet partner for a training session with the Santa Clara Aquamaids in California. Their visas expired after two months, but Kozlova was convinced this was going to be her new home.

She went back to Russia and won a silver medal in the World Cup and a gold in the European Championships before deciding to move to the United States later in 1993. She had no money and no job, but coach Chris Carver and the parents of some U.S. synchronized swimmers opened their doors to her.

Because she was not a U.S. citizen, Kozlova was not able to compete internationally for nearly six years. That meant sitting in the stands during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, watching people she trained with _ from the United States and Russia _ earn medals.

Kozlova attended junior college, got a job as a hostess at a pancake house and competed in meets in the United States until Oct. 7, 1999, when she was given her citizenship. "I couldn't even say the oath because I was bawling so much," she said.

To Kozlova, putting her career on hold during her peak years was not such a high price to pay in exchange for her new home. "You have so much freedom here, and the people treat each other so well," she said. "Just getting up in the morning and knowing you can be whoever you want to be is so overwhelming."

Nearly two dozen athletes from other countries will be part of the U.S. delegation that marches into Sydney for the Opening Ceremonies on Friday.

From badminton player Kevin Han _ a 27-year-old who moved from China to Brooklyn as a teenager and worked as a busboy and a bicycle deliveryman for a Chinese restaurant _ to distance runner Abdi Abdirahman _ a 21-year-old whose family fled Somalia during a civil war in 1990 _ they run the gamut of countries and sports.

It seems the one shared trait is rampant patriotism.

"My daughter, at 2 years old, could say, "I love Daddy' and "Go, USA,' " Ghaffari said. "Competing for the USA is unlike anything else an athlete can experience. If you cheer for the Browns or the Indians or the Broncos, that doesn't make you a better American. But if you cheer for the USA, everybody has some stake in that."

Summer Olympics

WHERE: Sydney, Australia.

WHEN: Friday-Oct. 1.




WEATHER: The Games fall in Sydney's spring season. Temperatures are expected to range from 54 to 70 degrees.