Dr. Samuel "Sammy" Lee (born August 1, 1920) is the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States and the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic platform diving.
He was born in Fresno, California to parents who owned what he describes as "a little chop suey restaurant," and is of Korean descent.
As a twelve-year-old in 1932, Lee dreamed of becoming a diver. His parents moved to Highland Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. But at the time Latinos, Asians and African-Americans were only allowed to use the nearby Brookside Park Plunge in Pasadena, on Wednesdays, on what was called "international day": the day before the pool was scheduled to be drained and refilled with clean water. Because Lee needed a place to practice and could not regularly use the public pool, his coach dug a pit in his backyard and filled it with sand. Lee practiced by jumping into the pit.
Lee won a gold medal in the 10 meter platform and bronze medal in springboard diving in the 1948 games. He later won a gold medal in the 10 meter platform in 1952. His accomplishments were not limited to the athletic field. Lee was a student-athlete at Occidental College, where he received his undergraduate degree before attending the University of Southern California School of Medicine, where he received his M.D. in 1947. He went on to serve in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Korea from 1953–55, where he specialized in the diseases of the ear. In 1953, while serving his tour of duty in Korea, he won the James E. Sullivan Award, which is awarded annually by the Amateur Athletic Union to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. He went on to coach Olympic divers including Pat McCormick, Bob Webster, and Greg Louganis. He is a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame.
All of this accomplishment, however, did not mean the end of his experience with discrimination. In the later 1950s he faced housing discrimination in Orange County, California, where he attempted to buy a home only to be told he could not, and in one case having nearby residents gather petition signatures to "disallow" or discourage him from buying in "their" neighborhood. (In the latter case, a counterpetition sought to rectify this prejudice but the discriminatory effect had been achieved and Lee looked elsewhere.)