Olympic championSammy Lee

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Growing up in southern California, Lee wanted to be an Olympic diver, inspired by the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He would practice in a municipal swimming pool in Pasadena — but was only allowed to on Wednesdays: that’s the day Latinos, Asians, and blacks were allowed to swim, since the pool was drained and refilled on Thursdays. The racism “inspired me to perform,” he once said. “I was angered, but I was going to prove that in America, I could do anything.” Lee was born in the United States — of Korean immigrant parents; his father had a college degree in civil engineering, but couldn’t get work as a professional due to being Asian; he instead opened a restaurant. To get more practice, Lee dug a sand pit in his backyard and worked out there. In 1942, he won the United States National Diving Championships in both the 3-meter springboard and the 10-meter platform events, becoming the first “minority” to win the national championship in diving. World War II stopped the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, but Lee kept his training going. For the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, he earned bronze in the 3m springboard. In the 10m platform diving event, he performed a nearly perfect (and then-unprecedented) 3-1/2 somersault, which won him gold — and he became the first Asian American to medal at any Olympics. Four years later at the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, on his 32nd birthday, he again won gold on the 10m platform, making him the first American diver to win back-to-back golds in two different Olympic games.

Meanwhile, Lee stayed in school, earning his medical degree at the University of Southern California in 1946, and served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps — in Korea — from 1953 to 1955. While he was serving in Korea, Lee was summoned to treat Syngman Rhee — the president of South Korea. Rhee asked him to dive for Korea in the Olympics. “I was born an American,” he replied. “I think like an American. Only my face is Korean.” After returning home, despite being an Olympic hero and veteran, when he tried to buy a house in Garden Grove, Lee’s would-be white neighbors circulated a petition to “disallow” him from buying in “their” neighborhood. A Jewish developer, outraged at Lee’s treatment, sold him a model house in another part of town. In addition to his medical practice, Lee coached two-time diving gold medalist Bob Webster, and later coached Greg Louganis, who lived with Lee’s family before winning a silver medal in platform diving at the 1976 Olympics at the age of 16. He didn’t ask athletes to pay for his coaching, since his coaches didn’t charge him. Local municipalities finally came around: Sammy Lee Square, at the corner of Olympic Blvd. and Normandie Ave. in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, was named after him in 2010. The Los Angeles Unified School District named a school for him in 2013: the Dr. Sammy Lee Medical and Health Sciences Magnet School. Dr. Lee died at his Newport Beach home on December 2, from pneumonia. He was 96.

Author’s Note: Nearly a year after writing this entry, I was visiting my 93-year-old mother, who grew up in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles. She happened to tell me the story of the older Korean boy who invited her to a high school dance. Yes, she accepted the invitation, and told me a little bit about how the kids liked Sammy, but he suffered “terrible discrimination” and could only practice his diving “the day before they changed the water” at the municipal swimming pool. She, and her older sister, followed Sammy’s career over the decades: they knew he was a doctor, and contributed significantly to underprivileged communities, she said.

Yes, mom reads True — but probably doesn’t always finish every issue. She seems to have missed this write-up …until I showed it to her in late 2017. Her sister, Lottie, died in 2011 at 90.

From This is True for 4 December 2016