In the golden California summers before World War II, Sammy Lee, a Korean-American, was just one of the “colored” boys in the Pasadena pool on Wednesdays. That was “International Day,” when Asian, black and Latino children were allowed to swim. After they were gone, the pool was drained and refilled with clean water for the white children who came every other day of the week.
Years later, fulfilling a vow to his father, he stood on the high diving platform at the Olympic Games in London and looked down at cheering crowds. It was like standing atop a three-story building. But he had long ago conquered his fear of heights, and of bigotry. He was a doctor and a compact athlete representing the United States.
He ran forward and rose majestically into the air.
Dr. Sammy Lee, who died of pneumonia Friday in Newport Beach in Southern California at the age of 96, faced prejudice growing up, and discrimination when he tried to buy a home in a white community in Southern California. But he also became the first Asian-American to earn Olympic gold and the first American to win consecutive gold medals in Olympic platform diving.
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Owing to his birth in Fresno, he was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in 1967. According to research by The Bee’s Paula Lloyd, he spent his early years on his family’s farm near Dinuba before moving to Southern California as a boy.
Dr. Lee won a gold medal in 10-meter platform diving and a bronze in 3-meter springboard diving at the 1948 Olympics in London, and a gold in platform diving at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. He also won three national diving championships as a collegian in the 1940s and was named America’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1953 by the Amateur Athletic Union.
He became an ambassador to the Olympics for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan; coached Greg Louganis, Bob Webster and other U.S. diving champions, and the U.S. diving team at the 1960 Olympics in Rome; and was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.
Sting of discrimination
An eye, ear and throat specialist, Dr. Lee was an Army major and medical officer in the Korean War. But in 1955, as he ended eight years of military service, all his achievements did not spare him from racial discrimination when he tried to buy a home in Garden Grove, a booming postwar community in Orange County where he wanted to open a medical practice. When turning him away, real estate agents were candid.
“I’m sorry, doctor,” one told him, “but I have to eat, and I’d lose my job for selling to a nonwhite.”
Dr. Lee’s wife, Rosalind, then tried to buy a building lot in a development in Anaheim. He recalled, “The agent said the value of the property would drop so badly if he sold to me that he wouldn’t be able to sell the rest of the homes.”
That day Dr. Lee was at the White House, dining with Eisenhower. When word got out that he had been a victim of housing discrimination, the media picked up the story and it became a national scandal. Protests, apologies and offers of assistance ensued.
Whenever I was asked by those people in the Far East how America treated Oriental people, I told them the truth. I said Americans had their shortcomings, but they had guts enough to advertise them, whereas others try to cover them up.
Dr. Sammy Lee
Housing discrimination always has been common in America, despite laws against it. But Lee’s status as an Olympian made a difference. Vice President Nixon said he was “shocked” and pledged help. Anaheim’s mayor spoke out. A newspaper offered to pay the Lees’ house-hunting expenses, and real estate agents jumped to show them homes.
The Lees bought one in Garden Grove, and the county held a welcome party when they moved in. Neighbors came and politicians gave speeches.
“My belief in the American people is substantiated,” Dr. Lee said.
He later toured Asia for the State Department.
“Whenever I was asked by those people in the Far East how America treated Oriental people, I told them the truth,” he recalled. “I said Americans had their shortcomings, but they had guts enough to advertise them, whereas others try to cover them up.”
Dr. Lee practiced medicine in Orange County for 35 years until he retired in 1990. He later moved to Huntington Beach. His condominium community had a pool, and even in his 90s he swam a few laps every day.
Roots in San Joaquin Valley
Samuel Lee was born on Aug. 1, 1920, in Fresno, one of five children of Soonkee Rhee and Eunkee Chun, who married in Korea as children, fulfilling a traditional contract by their families.
They moved to California in 1905 and settled in the Fresno area, where they changed their surname and opened a restaurant.
Sammy learned to swim in the Fresno area. After the family moved to Highland Park, in northeast Los Angeles, in the late 1920s, he swam at Brookside Park in nearby Pasadena – but only on Wednesdays because the pool was reserved for whites on other days.
The Lees encountered racial abuse from neighbors who used slurs and urged them to move. Sammy also heard it in school, where distinctions among Japanese, Chinese and other Asians were lost in a blur of angry abuse. Lee said his father called the bigots misguided and urged him to be proud of his heritage.
Inspired by Americans who took all the diving medals at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Lee promised his father he would someday be an Olympian. He graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in 1939, Occidental College in 1943 and the University of Southern California medical school in 1947.
Trained privately, Lee won the national AAU springboard and platform championships in 1942 and was the national AAU platform champion in 1946.
The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled because of World War II, but on Aug. 5, 1948, as the Olympic diving competitions drew to a close in London, he stood on the high platform, as he had vowed. He was lithe and muscled, just over 5 feet tall, and in recent days had dazzled crowds and judges with dives of balletic precision, with front and back somersaults and elegant pikes and twists. He had already won a bronze for springboard dives, and he led the pack in platform scores.
The cheers stopped.
He ran forward and rose majestically into the air.
He hovered at the peak, his arms reaching for heaven, and curled into a tuck – a man wrapped into a tight ball, chin brushing kneecaps, hands grasping shins – before rolling forward into the power dive. A blur of speed, he somersaulted 3 1/2 times in a 33-foot pinwheeling plunge, coming out of it just in time and opening into a perfect illusion of the vertical body – a knife entering the water.
He had the gold. And he would do it again four years later.
Dr. Samuel “Sammy” Lee
Born: Aug. 1, 1920, in Fresno
Died: Dec. 2, 2016, in Newport Beach
Survivors: wife, Rosalind M.K. Wong; children, Pamela and Sammy II; three grandchildren, according to The Associated Press