Sammy Lee, First Asian-American Man to Earn Olympic Gold, Dies at 96

  • Level 3 - Captain

    Sammy Lee, First Asian-American Man to Earn Olympic Gold, Dies at 96

    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 on Friday in Newport Beach, Calif., at age 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 man to earn Olympic gold, and the first American to win consecutive gold medals in Olympic platform diving. (The Filipino-American diver Victoria Manalo Draves won a gold medal two days before he did.)

    The University of Southern California announced his death on its website.

    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.
    Continue reading the main story
    Related Coverage

    Their Golden Years JULY 21, 2012

    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 American diving champions, as well as the American diving team at the 1960 Olympics in Rome; and was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.

    An ear, nose 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,” he remembered one telling him, “but I have to eat, and I’d lose my job for selling to a nonwhite.”

Log in to reply

Looks like your connection to AsianSoul was lost, please wait while we try to reconnect.