Sammy Lee (diver)

Sammy Lee (diver)

Sammy Lee
Personal information
Citizenship American
Born (1920-08-01) August 1, 1920
Fresno, California, United States
Country United States
Sport Diving

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

Lee 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 living near Los Angeles, Lee saw and was motivated by the many Olympics banners and souvenirs on display for the Summer Olympics being held in Los Angeles that year. Later that summer, he found that he could do somersaults much better than all of his friends, which led to his goal of becoming an Olympic champion in diving.[3]

Lee's parents moved to Highland Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. At the time, however, 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.[4][5][6] Lee practiced by jumping into the pit.[7]

Under the tutelage of renowned diving coach Jim Ryan, Lee won the United States National Diving Championships in 1942 in both the 3-meter springboard and the 10-meter platform events, becoming the first person of color to capture the United States national championship in diving. In 1946 he again triumphed at the 10-meter platform event while finishing 3rd at the 3-meter springboard competition at the national diving competition in San Diego, California.[3] At the 1948 Summer Games in London, England, lee earned a bronze medal in the 3-meter springboard and a gold medal in 10-meter platform diving events. Four years later, he won the gold medal in the 10-meter platform competition at Helsinki, Finland.[3]

His accomplishments were not limited to the athletic field. Lee attended Franklin High School and later 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.[8] He is a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame.[9]

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.)[10][11]

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.[8][12][13][14] He was also honored with a spot on the Anaheim/Orange County Walk of Stars in 2009.[15] 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.[16][17]


  1. ^ Almasy, Steve (2008-08-22). "After 60 years, Olympians are fast friends again".  
  2. ^ Williams, Juan & Halberstam, David (2004). My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience. Sterling.  
  3. ^ a b c Aquitania, Ray E. M.D. (2011). Jock-Docs: World-Class Athletes Wearing White Coats.  
  4. ^ Baker, Chris (1990-06-16). "Physical, Spiritual Blights Are Eliminated : Swimming: Pasadena's new aquatic complex replaces an eyesore, lays to rest memories of racism for former Olympian".  
  5. ^ Zarnow, Teryl (2011-10-20). "Oral history? Telling it like it was".  
  6. ^ Ortiz, Erik (2006-11-18). "Diver shows how guts outweigh skin: The sport's first Asian-American to win Olympic gold tells pupils about bias and athletics".  
  7. ^ Margolis, Jane (2008). Stuck In the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.  
  8. ^ a b Crowe, Jerry (2011-05-30). "Lee never let racism block his march to diving glory".  
  9. ^ "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".  
  10. ^ "Fair Housing In the Cold War Era". California State University, Fullerton. 2011-04-28. 
  11. ^ "Special Educational Panel Discussion Covering Fair Housing in Orange County During Cold War Era" (PDF). Fullerton Arboretum. 2011-05-04. 
  12. ^ "LA Square Named After Korean-American Diver".  
  13. ^ Sung-woo, Chun (2010-08-09). "Sammy Lee Square dedicated in L.A. to honor diving legend".  
  14. ^ "City Council 10-1231" (PDF).  
  15. ^ Tully, Sarah (2009-05-26). "Sammy Lee gets a star and, he jokes, a headstone".  
  16. ^ "LAUSD starts new school year with promise, excitement".  
  17. ^ Plummer, Mary (2013-05-15). "New name for South LA school 'Diego Rivera Learning Complex' flies under the radar".  

External links

  • Sammy Lee on
  • Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story written by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Dom Lee (Lee & Low Books, 2005), ISBN 978-1-58430-247-6. The inspirational true story of Sammy Lee, a Korean American who overcame discrimination to realize both his father’s desire that he become a doctor and his own dream of becoming an Olympic champion diver.
  • Sammy Lee's profile at Sports