Sammy Lee was the first Asian-American man to win an Olympic gold medal.
The son of Korean immigrants, Lee faced racial prejudice and could swim in his Southern California community pool only one day per week – nonwhite children were permitted to swim only on International Day each Wednesday, the day before the pool’s weekly draining and cleaning. But Lee was inspired by the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games and set his mind to become an Olympian.
While attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, in 1942 Lee won the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform diving events in the AAU national championships. He graduated from Occidental the following year and enrolled in medical school.
Lee returned to competition in 1946 and again won the AAU national championship in the 10-meter platform event. Upon graduation from the University of Southern California School of Medicine in 1947, he joined the U.S. Army Reserves and served in the Korean War.
Lee, who was 5 feet 1 and used his stature to his advantage in diving, qualified for the London 1948 Olympic Games. After The Olympics were canceled in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II, Lee made his mark in London, taking bronze in the 3-meter springboard and doing a remarkable 3 ½ forward somersaults to win gold in the 10-meter platform.
Lee did not compete much over the next four years, but still qualified for the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games. He contemplated skipping The Olympics because of a sense of duty to the army, but he was given one month off to train. In Helsinki, Lee became the first diver to successfully defend his gold medal in the 10-meter platform event. He later was presented the James E. Sullivan Award in 1953 as the nation’s top amateur athlete.
While Lee focused on his career as an ear, nose and throat doctor, he remained involved in diving as a coach. He coached the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team and the 1964 Japanese and Korean Olympic teams.