When one talks about Korean American living legends, Dr. Sammy Lee is a must-include on that list. The two-time Olympic gold medalist in diving celebrates his 94th birthday today.
“Papa, some day I’m going to be an Olympic champion,” Lee, as a boy, told his Korean immigrant father, who proceeded to chuckle and ask, “What in?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll find it,” said the young Lee.
This kid wasn’t joking. Even as he would go to attend and graduate from medical school, he never let go of his Olympic dreams. In 1948, Dr. Lee would became the first Asian American to win a gold medal for the U.S. at the London Olympics in the 10-meter platform diving competition. He would strike gold again in 1952 at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
“Here is perfection in slow motion,” an American commentator at the time said, upon introducing footage of Lee’s exquisite diving form.
Of course, the U.S.’ celebration of the Olympic gold medalist was quite a contrast to the overt discrimination he and his family experienced living in the Southern California at that time. He famously was only allowed to practice once a week at a city pool because the rest of the week was reserved for whites only. Lee said that workers even drained the pool after he swam in it.
The Olympian, who served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, also faced housing discrimination when looking for a home to buy in Orange County, Calif., in the 1950s.
Lee often talks about having the courage to overcome such barriers and tells young people, especially, that anything is possible. He is the subject of a children’s book by Paula Yoo, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story, and an L.A. science magnet school is named after him. And remember how that one county tried to ban him from living there? Well, Lee got the last laugh. Today, he has his name etched into the Anaheim Walk of Stars, similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in Orange County.
Lee is a winner of the James E. Sullivan Award, an honor reserved for the nation’s most outstanding amateur athletes, and an inductee into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. He has also coached other Olympic divers, including gold medalist Greg Louganis.
Check out some incredible footage of Lee demonstrating his diving prowess. And happy birthday, Dr. Sammy Lee!