Sammy Lee (diver)

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Sammy Lee
Sammy Lee 1951.png

Dr. Samuel "Sammy" Lee (born August 1, 1920) is the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States[1] and the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic platform diving.

Life and career[edit]

He was born in Fresno, California to parents who owned what he describes as "a little chop suey restaurant,"[2] 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.[3][4][5] Lee practiced by jumping into the pit.[6]

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.[7] He is a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame.[8]

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.) [9][10]

A landmark, the Sammy Lee Square, at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles' Koreatown was named after him in 2010.[7][11][12][13] He was also honored with a spot on the Anaheim/Orange County Walk of Stars in 2009.[14]

The Los Angeles Unified School District honored Lee by renaming Central Region Elementary School #20 as the Dr. Sammy Lee Medical and Health Sciences Magnet School in 2013.[15][16]


  1. ^ Steve Almasy: After 60 years, Olympians are fast friends again,, 22 Aug 2008
  2. ^ Juan Williams and David Halberstam, My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience, Sterling (May 28, 2004), ISBN 9781402722332.
  3. ^ Baker, Chris (June 16, 1990), "Physical, Spiritual Blights Are Eliminated : Swimming: Pasadena's new aquatic complex replaces an eyesore, lays to rest memories of racism for former Olympian", Los Angeles Times 
  4. ^ "Oral history? Telling it like it was". Orange County Register, October 20, 2011.
  5. ^ "Diver shows how guts outweigh skin: The sport's first Asian-American to win Olympic gold tells pupils about bias and athletics". Orange County Register, November 18, 2006.
  6. ^ Jane Margolis, Stuck In the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008, ISBN 9780262260961.
  7. ^ a b Crowe, Jerry (May 30, 2011), "Lee never let racism block his march to diving glory", Los Angeles Times 
  8. ^ "Sammy Lee One of Seven Inducted Into U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame : Diving: Huntington Beach doctor, who won gold medals in 1948 and '52, makes a splash during induction ceremony", Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1990 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ "LA Square Named After Korean-American Diver". KBS World, August 6, 2010.
  12. ^ "Sammy Lee Square dedicated in L.A. to honor diving legend". Korea Herald, August 9, 2010.
  13. ^ "City Council 10-1231" Los Angeles City Council, July 22, 2010.
  14. ^ "Sammy Lee gets a star and, he jokes, a headstone". Orange County Register, May 26, 2009.
  15. ^ "LAUSD starts new school year with promise, excitement". Los Angeles Daily News, August 13, 2013.
  16. ^ "New name for South LA school 'Diego Rivera Learning Complex' flies under the radar". KPCC, May 15, 2013.

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