The Asian-American diver who battled racism to win Olympic gold
Sammy Lee 1920–2016
As a teenager in 1930s California, Sammy Lee dreamed of becoming an Olympic diver. But the Korean-American could use the board at his local Pasadena pool only on Wednesdays— the facility was reserved for whites on other days. So Lee did most of his diving practice on dry land, jumping off a makeshift board into a sand pit he’d dug in his coach’s backyard. In 1948, his balletic twists and somersaults would make him the first Asian-American to win an Olympic gold medal. Racism “inspired me to perform,” Lee said. “I was going to prove that, in America, I could do anything.”
Born in Fresno, Calif., to Korean immigrants, at 12 years old Lee vowed to become an Olympian, after “riding in his father’s Model T truck through Los Angeles streets” decorated for the 1932 Games, said the Los Angeles Times. In 1942, he won a national diving championship. Six years later, the 5-foot-1 athlete— then an Army doctor— nailed an “unprecedented 3½ somersault” at the London Games to capture his first gold in platform diving. Lee won another gold at the 1952 Games in Helsinki.
“His achievements did not spare him from racial discrimination,” said The New York Times. Realtors refused to sell him a home in an Orange County community in 1955 because he wasn’t white, sparking outrage from newspapers and Vice President Richard Nixon. Lee went on to coach Olympic divers, including Greg Louganis, and to tour Asia for the State Department— where people asked him how Asians were treated in the U.S. “I told them the truth,” he said. “Americans had their shortcomings, but they had guts enough to advertise them, whereas others try to cover them up.”