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Physical, Spiritual Blights Are Eliminated : Swimming: Pasadena's new aquatic complex replaces an eyesore, lays to rest memories of racism for former Olympian.

June 16, 1990|CHRIS BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Sammy Lee, a two-time Olympic gold-medal diver, stood atop the 10-meter platform at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena. He felt as though he were standing on top of the world.

Framed by the the majestic San Gabriel mountains, Lee gazed at the Rose Bowl from the diving tower at the new, $6.5-million aquatic complex, scheduled to open today.

"I feel 50 years younger standing on this platform," said Lee, 69. "But my wife won't lie on it."

Fifty years ago, Lee, of Korean descent, could dive at the old Brookside Park plunge, site of the new aquatic complex, only on Wednesdays, since Wednesday had been dubbed "International Day." On that day, the pool was reserved for male blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minorities.

The pool was then drained and refilled, and its use was restricted to white males. White females were allowed to use it one day a week. Black women were not allowed access.

"But I found out 40 years later when I met the former pool director and I said, 'I remember you, you SOB. You're the guy who had to empty that pool every time I used it.' And he said, 'How could we empty a pool 55 yards long and 12 feet deep overnight?'

"He said that what they used to do was drop the water level of the pool about two feet, and when people saw that, it looked like they were emptying the pool. Everyone walked away and then they filled it back up."

The racial, ethnic and gender restrictions were lifted in 1940, when the pool was opened to all residents of Pasadena.

Lee said he was motivated by the racial snubs he encountered while training.

"It gave me a lot of drive to excel and to prove people wrong," Lee said. "People said I could never be an Olympic champion, and I said, 'I'm an American, just like you. I'm going to show you I can be an Olympic champion."'

And Lee showed the world.

Terry Wilson, director of the new aquatic complex, hopes that minorities will use it as a springboard to becoming involved in swimming and diving.

"One of our main goals is to get minority kids into organized swimming, water polo, diving and synchronized swimming," Wilson said. "That doesn't mean every kid will be going for the gold at the Olympics. But we want to expose them to swimming.

"We're offering the children of this community the opportunity to train and learn in a world-class facility. Other facilities like this, such as Industry Hills, are private and people don't get an opportunity to work out there."

Lee agreed.

"I hope we can get more of the minority groups involved in aquatic sports," Lee said. "The problem is, there are no financial rewards at the end for most aquatic athletes."

On hot summer days, the old Brookside plunge was filled with youngsters trying to escape the heat and smog that plague Pasadena.

Opened in 1914 and expanded in 1923, the Brookside plunge was used for water polo games during the 1932 Olympics.

The pools were closed in 1983 after falling into disrepair, and the pool area became an eyesore as weeds overgrew the complex.

A group of citizens led a drive to build an aquatic complex on the site of the old pools. They formed a nonprofit corporation and got the land from the city on 30-year, $1-a-year lease.

They then set about to raise the $6.5 million needed to build the complex. The City of Pasadena contributed $200,000 and the Amateur Athletic Foundation gave $200,000. Other major donors included The Times Mirror Foundation and The Times Fund, the Chandlis Foundation, ARCO, Dr. Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the State of California and Dr. Gene Scott.

The complex features two 50-meter by 25-yard pools and a children's wading pool. One of the 50-meter pools will be divided into two 25-yard by 25-meter pools, which will include 17-foot diving wells. There are three diving platforms--a 10-meter platform, a 7 1/2-meter platform and a five-meter platform--two three-meter springboards and two one-meter springboards.

Lee was impressed by the facility, saying it surpasses the facility used for the 1984 Olympic Games.

"I think this is fantastic," he said. "I've seen facilities all over the world, but I never realized that (the Pasadena organizers) would go first class. Everything is first class. I'm sure when swimmers and divers come here from all over the world, they're going to be flabbergasted. Look at the beauty of this facility. It matches the beauty of the surroundings."

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