Sammy Lee, Korean-American Olympic Gold Medalist in diving, dies at 96


Dr Sammy Lee from California, America, died at the age of 96 on 2 December 2016 of pneumonia. He was America’s first Asian Olympic gold medalist. He was also the first American to win consecutive gold medals in Olympic platform diving. He won a gold medal in 10-metre platform diving and a bronze in 3-metre springboard diving at the 1948 Olympics in London, Great Britain, at the age of 28. He returned four years later to win a gold in platform diving at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.


From a Korean background, Sammy Lee (1920-2016) was born in Fresno, California, and grew up in Newport Beach. His parents moved from Korea to California in 1905, and he was the youngest of five children. They later moved to Pasadena. He became an ear, nose and throat specialist, and served in the Korean War as an army major and medical officer, from 1947-1955.

Although a doctor and a dual Olympic medalist, he was discrimated against when he tried to buy a home in a white community in Southern California in 1955. On the day Lee’s wife, Rosalind (whom he married in 1950), tried to buy a building lot, Lee was having dinner in the White House with President Dwight D Eisenhower. Vice-President Richard M Nixon pledged to intervene to assist the Lees in their house-hunting, and enabled them to purchase a home in Garden Grove.

Lee became an ambassador to the Olympics for Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, and also Ronald Reagan. He coached diver Greg Louganis, as well as other diving champions and the American diving team at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. He was elected into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968, and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990. He also continued his medical practice until he retired in 1990.

Even as he swam he faced discrimination. The training pools only allowed non-whites to swim on Wednesdays in the Brookside Park pool in Pasadena, and neighbours urged the Lee family to move away from the neighbourhood. His father’s response was to be proud of his heritage.


Photographs: Sammy Lee by The New York Times (top); diving by; and as a doctor in 1953 by George Sweers of the Associated Press

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