Diving Legend Sammy Lee Passes Away At Age 96

Sammy Lee became the first person of color to win a USA Diving National Championship.

USA Olympic legend Dr. Sammy Lee – 1948 and 1952 Olympic Gold medalist – passed away on December 2nd, at age of 96, due to pneumonia.  He was a true giant in the sport of Olympic diving.

Sammy Lee

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Lee was born August 1st, 1920 in Fresno, California to parents of Korean descent. His father graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Occidental College, but was unable to find work due to his Asian ancestry. He was then forced to open a chop suey restaurant and market. As a twelve-year-old living near Los Angeles, Lee was motivated by the many Olympics banners and souvenirs on display for the 1932 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.

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. Lee practiced by jumping into the pit.

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.

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.

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. He is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the US Olympic Hall of Fame.

All of this accomplishment, however, did not mean the end of his experience with discrimination. In 1954 he faced housing discrimination in Garden Grove, 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.

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. He was also honored with a spot on the Anaheim/Orange County Walk of Stars in 2009. 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.

10 Comments

10 comments

  1. Johnny Karnofsky

    He was made an honorary member of my club swim team @loscabsports in the 80s….

    • avatar
      cynthia

      What interesting is now Garden Grove has a lot of Koreans, so times changed. Easter Williams mention him in her book.

  2. Julia Mason Lockhart

    My grandfather served with him in the Army Medical Corps in Korea. He told me a story of Sammy putting on a diving exhibition at one of the MASH unit areas, and said it was an amazing sight. When I was a teenager, he showed me a photo he had of him diving into a water tank and said he thought it was incredible that an Olympian was serving alongside of him in the hell that was Korea. Rest in peace, sir…

  3. avatar
    Mary Alcala-Mitchell

    RIP Dr Sammy Lee, love and prayers for you and your family I so enjoyed meeting you in 1973 at
    Santa Ana High School when the pool was newly opened for use. Dr. Lee was there on many occasions
    during that time as he was helping some of the students with their training/diving efforts. Dr. Lee was so kind and open. In our community he was also well known as a great medical practitioner caring and giving. RIP kind Sir

  4. avatar
    David Hamilton

    One of my best memories if my time at Swimming workd was interviewing Sammy Lee for hours in 1980. RIP

  5. avatar
    Joe Kozak

    Dr Lee I enjoyed my time as a patient of yours and all the great stories. Plus seeing you at many of the NFF Banquets. What a great Man!!

  6. avatar
    Laura Senter

    Rest easy Sammy! I will never forget his response when I would ask “How are you doing today Sammy?” He would smile as cute as can be and say “Well I’m still looking at the right side of the grass”. My sincerest condolences to his close friends and family who knew him well, he is a true legend.

Author: Brent Rutemiller

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