Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sammy Lee dies at 96

Dr. Sammy Lee, Olympic gold medal-winning diver and coach to Greg Louganis, dies at 96
(OC Reg)

     ...Dr. Sammy Lee, a noted physician who broke down racial barriers by becoming the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States, has died of complications from pneumonia.
. . .
     He was 96.
. . .
     The Huntington Beach resident was born in Fresno in 1920 to Korean immigrant parents.
     Lee won Olympic gold for the U.S. in London in 1948 and successfully defended his 10-meter diving Olympic title in Helsinki in 1952. He later coached some of the United States’ best Olympic divers, including Greg Louganis, Bob Webster and Pat McCormick.
     Olympic champion Louganis said Lee influenced his career at an important time.
     “He taught me at a very early age the responsibility of being (an) ambassador to not only my sport of diving but to the world,” Louganis said in a statement. “I was only 16 at my first Olympics with him as my coach.”
     McCormick, a four-time Olympic gold medalist diver who represented the U.S. alongside Lee in the 1952 Olympics, previously told the Register that Lee was one of his idols growing up.
     “He’s so loved in (the swimming) community,” McCormick said.
     Lee graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School, attained a bachelor’s degree from Occidental College and got a medical degree from USC. He had his own practice as an ear, nose and throat specialist in Santa Ana for many years.
     He also served in the Army for 13 years, retiring as a major.
. . .
     As a Korean American, Lee had to overcome racism many times in his career and personal life.
     “When he was growing up, his professors and teachers told him he should just be content working at his parent’s chop suey house,” Lee II recalled. “He would get angry, but he would get angry to do something about it to where he would better himself.”
     Lee was student body president at his high school but had to get special permission to swim in Pasadena’s public pool on senior day, his son said. And when he went to buy his first home in Garden Grove in the 1950s, he twice was turned down because of his race.
. . .
     “I tell the kids today that if you got the fighting instinct in you, you can overcome prejudice,” Lee said. “You show people with your performance, not just words.”
     Until recently, Lee swam almost daily at the Los Caballeros Racquet and Sports Club in Fountain Valley.
. . .
London, 1948
     “The sport has lost one of its founding fathers,” [coach of the Crown Valley Divers club, Kurt] Wilson said from a diving meet in Irvine. “He dove through prejudice. I remember him telling me a story one time where he could dive on a Tuesday because they were going to drain the pool on Wednesday because people wouldn’t dive in the pool after he dove in the pool. ... He had a lot of adversity against him (but) never let that affect his willingness to work harder than anybody.”
. . .
     In May 2009, Lee became the 11th recipient of a star on the Anaheim/OC Walk of Stars. His star is on Harbor Boulevard, just south of the entrance to Disneyland.
     Along with his dad’s professional achievements, Lee II hopes his father will be remembered for his work ethic and for his open-mindedness.
     “He didn’t care about anyone’s race, religion, ethnicity or sexual preference,” Lee II said. “If you look at his divers, it was really a multination people he helped.”….

From a Dissent the Blog post (Deceived by cats...) in 2009:


A couple of days ago, our pal Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly (Lee-ving out crucial OC civil rights history in the Anaheim walk of stars) reported an incident that many would rather forget:
Legendary Olympian and longtime Orange County resident Sammy Lee was honored two days ago with a spot on the Anaheim Walk of Stars, and it was fascinating to see history in action…. The story in the Orange County Register mentioned his back-to-back gold medals in platform diving during the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, and that he served for years afterward as a coach. But it didn't even hint at Lee's involvement in one of the uglier moments in Orange County history.

In 1954, Lee—an Army vet, licensed doctor, two-time gold-medal winner and recent recipient of the Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete in the United States—tried to buy a house in Garden Grove but was refused. Twice. All because he was Asian. Garbage Grove's racism was condemned worldwide for the obvious reasons, and even Ed Sullivan and then-veep Richard Nixon spoke publicly in favor of Lee, who eventually did buy a home…. His struggle to buy a house was an important step in the battle to end housing segregation in Orange County that ultimately culminated in the Mulkey v. Reitman Supreme Court case.
About 8 or 9 years after the unfortunate “Garden Grove” episode, my mother took Annie and me to swim classes at a place, if I recall correctly, near Collins and Tustin in the City of Orange. My memory tells me that it was a “Sammy Lee” facility. I seem to recall seeing his name emblazoned (in cursive) on the outside wall of the building. I’ll see if I can find evidence that my memory is correct.

See also biography and video of Sammy Lee

P.P.S.:

I found this at OC History Roundup:
Today's photo shows U.S. Olympic divers Sammy Lee and Vicki Manolo Draves at the London Olympic Games in August 1948. Dr. Lee won a gold medal that year, and again in 1952 at Helsinki. But much of Orange County knows him as the man who taught them how to swim. Lee's swim school was a fixture in Anaheim for many years, beginning in the 1950s. Today, he received the 11th star on the Anaheim/OC Walk of Stars, in front of Disneyland....
I also found a reference to one of Lee's schools in Santa Ana.

Orange: across the street from Sammy's business, c. 1962

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this kind of local history. Thanks.