Dr. Sammy Lee is the first American of Asian descent to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States. The diminutive diver, just 5-feet tall, had to overcome much discrimination before attaining his goals: to be an Olympic champion and to be a doctor. He had promised his father, “I’ll do both,” avowed Sammy. Dr. Lee went on to become an ear, nose and throat specialist. He studied pre-med at Occidental College and received his MD at the USC medical school in 1947.
Due to the outbreak of World War II, an urgent need for doctors arose. Sammy enrolled in an “accelerated program”, completing the normal four-year curriculum in just three years. In the meantime, Sammy would squeeze in diving practice when he could. Practice was made even more difficult, because he had to combat discrimination and prejudice virtually every day. “I would practice at the Los Angeles Swim Stadium and Brookside pool,” Sammy said “but non-Whites could use the pool only at Brookside one day a week, on Wednesday. And then the pool was emptied after we used it, and fresh water was brought in the next day.”
When the pool was closed to Sammy, he would often practice his diving form by jumping onto a sand pile. He got his big break when he came under the tutelage of renowned diving coach Jim Ryan. “Jim was a big Irishman, who stood 6’4″ and weighed 275 lbs.,” Sammy recalled. “He would take me to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which was normally closed to the minorities. But no one dared to tell Jim Ryan that I couldn’t come into the club with him.”
In 1942, at the age of 22, Sammy competed in the National Diving Championships and become the first non-Caucasion to win. The 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games had been cancelled due to the war. Not until 1948, Sammy then 28, bid for his first Olympic medal. He astounded the world by winning a gold medal in the IOM platform and a bronze medal in the 3M springboard. In the 1952 Olympic Games, Sammy won his second gold medal in the IOM plrtform. At 32, he was the oldest person to win a gold medalin diving, and first male diver to win back-to-back diving gold medals.
A few years later, Sammy turned to coaching and not surprisingly, met with great success. He coached Bob Webster to gold medals in 1960 and 1964 and did the same with the great Greg Louganis to a silver medal in 1976. The U.S. led a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow because of the cold war with Russia.
Sammy is now 96 years old and tries to stay active. He markets the Sammy sports towel with the help of his daughter-in-law, Gina. Sammy and his wife, Roz have two children, a daughter Pamela, and son Sammy II. Sammy is a second-generation Korean American who was born in the United States. His father was a dedicated patriot for Korean independence and was a close friend of Syngman Rhee, who was the first president of South Korea. Dr. Sammy Lee has represented President Eisenhower, President Nixon, and President Reagan to the 1956, 1972, and 1988 Olympic Games. He is the only Asian-American to have won the James E. Sullivan award as the U.S. outstanding amateur athlete.