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Lee never let racism block his march to diving glory

CROWE'S NEST

Growing up, Lee could use a pool in Pasadena only on the one day of the week designated as the 'non-white' day. In 1948, he became the first American of Asian descent to earn an Olympic gold medal by winning the men's platform.

May 30, 2011|JERRY CROWE

Bigotry couldn't break Sammy Lee.

Racism only steeled the two-time Olympic diving champion.

"It inspired me to perform," Lee says of the prejudice that threatened to quash the boyhood dreams of an ambitious son of Korean immigrants. "I was angered, but I was going to prove that in America I could do anything."

So determined was the Fresno-born, Highland Park-reared Lee that when a college recruiter scoffed at his life goals -- win an Olympic gold medal, become a doctor -- and inquired about his backup plan, he realized he didn't have one.

Nor would he need one.

Lee, 90, made it all happen.

The diminutive diver, all of 5 feet, already was known as Dr. Sammy Lee by the time he won gold in the men's platform at the London Games in 1948, becoming the first American of Asian descent to win a gold medal. At 32, he won again at Helsinki in 1952, becoming the oldest diver to win a gold medal.

The ear, nose and throat specialist later coached Olympic champions Bob Webster and Greg Louganis.

Lee's list of accomplishments and awards seemingly stretches from the water's surface to the top of the 10-meter platform, a trophy in his living room from USA Diving calling the gregarious Lee "our ambassador to the world."

Closer to home, he'll add another honor Sunday as part of the inaugural class inducted into the L.A. Unified School District High School Sports Hall of Fame. Lee, Esther Williams, Bret Saberhagen and the late Don Drysdale are among 55 honorees who will be enshrined during a ceremony at USC.

For Lee, it's a special honor "because some of my happiest days were spent at Benjamin Franklin High School."

During an interview at his harborfront home in Huntington Beach, the 1939 L.A. City diving champion remembers running for student body president over the objections of a school administrator.

"He calls me in and says, 'This school has never had a non-white student body president,' " Lee recalls. "He says, 'You might as well get your name off the list,' but I refused. And when I got elected, he called me into his office, looked me up and down and said, 'I just don't know what happened.'

"I said, 'My fellow classmates do not look at me as Korean. They look at me as a fellow American.' "

By then, unfortunately, Lee had grown accustomed to such slights, such as being allowed to use the Brookside Park Pool in Pasadena only on Wednesdays -- when it was open to non-whites on the day before it was to be drained and refilled.

Or the time he was shut out of a party as a youth and tearfully bemoaned his heritage to his father.

"He said, 'Son, you were born a free American,' " Lee remembers. ' "You can do anything you want because you're free, but if you are not proud of the color of your skin and the shape of your eyes, you'll never be accepted.' "

Luckily for Lee, he soon found in the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Jim Ryan a hulking coach who was profane but like-minded and told friends he'd turn "that Jap" into the world's greatest diver.

"I went over, grabbed him by the belt buckle and said, 'I'm not a Chink, I'm not a Jap, I'm a Korean,' " Lee notes, laughing. "He turned me around, kicked me in the butt and said, 'I don't give a if you're Filipino.' "

Thus, a partnership was born.

Ryan, who lived near UCLA, dug a hole in his backyard and filled it with two tons of sand so Lee would have a place to practice diving off a springboard when pools were unavailable.

He also advised Lee, a Class-B quarterback at Franklin, to give up football, though Lee says he was "crazy" about the sport.

"If I'd never met Jim Ryan," notes Lee, who studied medicine at USC after graduating from Occidental, "I don't think I would have been an Olympic champion."

Even as an Olympic champion, however, Lee continued to face prejudice. Though also a doctor and a Korean War veteran, he says he was rebuffed in his efforts to buy a home in Orange County until word of his plight was leaked to the media.

He and wife Roz, married nearly 61 years, have owned a home in Orange County since the mid-1950s, the last 33 years in Huntington Beach. Their two children have given them three grandchildren, of which Lee says, "I no longer worry about heaven because I get to play with three angels on planet Earth."

In August, a square in Koreatown was dedicated to Lee. Councilmember Tom LaBonge described him as an "American legend" with a "lifetime of remarkable achievements."

Steve Foley, the high performance director for USA Diving, calls Lee "a pioneer in so many areas" and notes of the man he calls an icon, "He's certainly someone who did it the hard way."

Lee remains active after a triple bypass on his 80th birthday. He stays busy by swimming and playing golf.

"I aggravate the hell out of myself twice a week," he says of his regularly scheduled golf outings. "The only thing golf ever did for me is improve my profanity."

On the bright side, he's no longer the target of the cursing.

As a boy, he says, he was confronted by neighbors carrying signs stating that they wanted Asians out. He also recalls an indignant German immigrant telling the protesters, "Someday you'll be proud the Lees were your neighbors."

Little Sammy made sure of it.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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