Off the Block – Dr. Sammy Lee, Olympic Diver

Sammy Lee

Dr. Sammy Lee with his wife Rosalind

Dr. Sammy Lee, the first diver to win back-to-back Olympic titles (1948 & 1952), stood just 5’1 and 3/4 inches tall, but was a giant in the worlds of the Olympics and International Aquatics and an American Hero.  He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 and visited Fort Lauderdale many times.

Samuel Lee was born on August 1, 1920, in Fresno, California, the youngest of five children of Soonkee Rhee and Eunkee Chun, who married in Korea as children, fulfilling a traditional contract by families.  They moved to California in 1905 and settled in Fresno, where they changed their surname and opened a restaurant.

Sammy learned to swim in Fresno.  After the family moved to Highland Park, in northeast Los Angeles, in the late 1920s, he swam at Brookside Park nearby.

In the golden California summers before World War II, Sammy Lee, a Korean-American, was just one of the “colored” boys in the Pasadena pool on Wednesdays.  That was “International Day,” when Asian, black and Latino children were allowed to swim.  “I would practice at the Los Angeles Swim Stadium and Brookside pool,” Sammy said, “but non-Whites could use the pool at Brookside only one day a week, on Wednesday.  After they were gone, the pool was drained and refilled with clean water for the white children who came every other day of the week.

When the pool was closed to Sammy, except for that day,’ he decided, ‘Okay, then I’m going to work with a coach who would help me.’  Lee found a coach and they worked on his diving over a sand pit.  And sand had one advantage over water: It gave him stronger leg muscles, which is why he was able to jump so high and perform those beautifully executed triple-somersault dives.  Ironically, racism made him a better diver.  The extra strength made Lee a good enough diver that he decided the Olympic team would be his goal.  He got his big break when he came under the tutelage of renowned diving coach Jim Ryan.  “Jim was a big Irishman, who stood 6’4” and weighed 275 lbs.,” Sammy recalled.  “He would take me to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which was normally closed to the minorities.  But no one dared to tell Jim Ryan that I couldn’t come into the club with him.”

Inspired by Americans who took all the diving medals at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Dr. Lee promised his father he would someday be an Olympian.  But he had another challenge, one at least as formidable as racial prejudice: his father.

Lee was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents who’d made tremendous sacrifices for their child: He was their American dream.  His father, Soonkee Rhee, wanted Sammy to be a doctor.  He thought his son should be spending as much time on his studies as he did at diving practice.  His father told him that prejudice was caused by ignorance, and urged him to become a medical doctor so the prejudice would stop.  Sammy wanted to become an Olympian in diving so promised his father, “I’ll do both.”  Dr. Lee went on to become an ear, nose and throat specialist.  He studied pre-med at Occidental College where he did a lot of studying and a lot of diving, and received his MD at the University of Southern California Medical School in 1947.  Due to the outbreak of World War II, an urgent need for doctors arose.  Sammy enrolled in an “accelerated program”, completing the normal four-year curriculum in just three years.  In the meantime, Sammy would squeeze in diving practice when he could.

The Lees encountered racial abuse from neighbors, who used slurs and urged them to move.  Sammy also heard it in school, where distinctions among Japanese, Chinese and other Asians were lost in a blur of angry abuse.  Dr. Lee said his father called the bigots misguided, and urged him to be proud of his heritage.

Sammy LeeLee was good enough to make the Olympic team, but the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled because of World War II.  He finally got his chance in 1948.  He was a 28-year-old medical corpsman in the Army Reserves competing in the London Olympics.

So, on August 5, 1948, as the Olympic diving competitions drew to a close in London, fulfilling the vow to his father, he stood on the high diving platform at the Olympic Games in London and looked down at cheering crowds.  It was like standing atop a three-story building.  But he had long ago conquered his fear of heights, and of bigotry.  He was a doctor and a compact athlete representing the United States.  He was lithe and muscled, just over five feet tall, and in recent days had dazzled crowds and judges with dives of balletic precision, with front and back somersaults and elegant pikes and twists.  He had already won a bronze for springboard dives, and he led the pack in platform scores.

The cheers stopped.

He ran forward and rose majestically into the air.

He hovered at the peak, his arms reaching for heaven, and curled into a tuck — a man wrapped into a tight ball, chin brushing kneecaps, hands grasping shins — before rolling forward into the power dive.  A blur of speed, he somersaulted three and a half times in a 33-foot pinwheeling plunge, coming out of it just in time and opening into a perfect illusion of the vertical body — a knife entering the water.

He had the gold.  And he would do it again four years later.

He competed once more in Helsinki four years later during the Korean War.  As Major Sammy Lee, he almost didn’t go: Lee thought he needed to tend to the troops.  The Army thought otherwise, gave him a month to train, and urged him to go.  Lee won his second gold, making him the only Asian-American to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals.  (He also earned a bronze in London for the 3-meter springboard.)

Dr. Lee won a gold medal in 10-meter platform diving and a bronze in 3-meter springboard diving at the 1948 Olympics in London, and a gold in platform diving at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.  He also won three national diving championships as a collegian in the 1940s and was named America’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1953 by the Amateur Athletic Union.

But he had to overcome much discrimination in attaining his goals: to be an Olympic Champion and to be a Medical Doctor.

As a civilian, Lee discovered that his status as a veteran didn’t shield him from prejudice.  In 1955, as he ended eight years of military service, he tried to buy a home in Garden Grove, a booming postwar community in Orange County, where he wanted to open a medical practice.  When turning him away, real estate agents were candid.  “I’m sorry, Doctor,” he remembered one telling him, “but I have to eat, and I’d lose my job for selling to a nonwhite.”

Dr. Lee’s wife, Rosalind, then tried to buy a building lot in a development in Anaheim.  He recalled, “The agent said the value of the property would drop so badly if he sold to me that he wouldn’t be able to sell the rest of the homes.”

That same day, Dr. Lee was at the White House, dining with President Eisenhower.  When word got out that he had been a victim of housing discrimination, the news media picked up the story, and it became a national scandal.  Protests, apologies and offers of assistance ensued.

Sammy LeeHousing discrimination has always been common in America, despite laws against it.  But Dr. Lee’s status as an Olympian made a difference.  Vice President Nixon said he was “shocked” and pledged help.  Anaheim’s mayor spoke out.  A newspaper offered to pay the Lees’ house-hunting expenses, and real estate agents jumped to show them homes.

The Sammy Lee Story - Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds

The Sammy Lee Story – Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds

The Lees bought one in Garden Grove, and the county gave a welcome party when they moved in.  Neighbors came, and politicians gave speeches.  “My belief in the American people is substantiated,” Dr. Lee said.

He became an ambassador to the Olympics for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan; coached Greg Louganis, Bob Webster and other American diving champions, as well as the American diving team at the 1960 Olympics in Rome; and was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.

He later toured Asia for the State Department.  “Whenever I was asked by those people in the Far East how America treated Oriental people, I told them the truth,” he recalled.  “I said Americans had their shortcomings, but they had guts enough to advertise them, whereas others try to cover them up.”

Dr. Lee practiced medicine in Orange County for 35 years, retiring in 1990.  He later moved to Huntington Beach, Calif.  His condominium community had a pool, and even in his 90s he swam a few laps every day.

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