Sammy Lee, the first male Asian American to win Olympic gold for the United States and longtime friend of the LA84 Foundation, passed away Friday at the age of 96.
A Los Angeles native, Lee burst onto the Olympic scene in diving, winning a gold medal in the 1948 London Games in the platform competition. In his winning dive, Lee pulled off a forward 3 1/2 somersault to stun the stadium crowd with a score of 36/40.
“As I tell everyone, that’s the second time in history man walked on water,” Lee told LA84 in a 1990 interview.
In 1952 in Helsinki, he defended his Olympic gold in the platform, becoming the first male diver to win back-to-back gold. During and after his time competing, Lee was also a dedicated serviceman. He served as a medical officer in the Korean War and in the military for eight years, then practiced as a doctor in Orange County for over 30 years.
Lee was also heavily involved with both the 1984 Games and the LA84 Foundation. He was the coach of Greg Louganis, coaching the young diver to silver in the 10m platform in Montreal in 1976, then proudly watching Louganis take home double gold in the 1984 Games in Lee’s hometown Los Angeles and repeating the double in the 1988 Seoul Games. Lee met a 10-year-old Louganis in 1970, when he attended the Junior Olympics at the Air Force Academy. “I turned to my son and I said “Son, there is potentially the greatest diver in history.”
Lee was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 and to the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.
“Sammy Lee was such a groundbreaking and pioneering athlete; and an inspirational coach, healer and American,” said LA84 President & CEO Renata Simril. “He was a longtime friend of LA84, a regular presence through the years at our headquarters, and a personal favorite of almost everyone who crossed his path here at LA84, and clearly, far beyond. While he will be missed his legacy will live on through our work.”
Lee became involved in Southern California Olympics and Paralympians (SCOP), embracing Los Angeles’ Olympic legacy and showing his support for the Olympic movement. When Olympians were asked to introduce themselves at LA84 events, the 5-foot tall Lee’s go-to introduction would always be “Sammy Lee, 1948, basketball.”
Born to Korean immigrant parents in Fresno, Lee moved to Highland Park as a child. His diving career began at Pasadena’s Brookside Pool, but given that the pool was only open one day a week for minorities, Lee also built a sand pit in his backyard in which to practice his dives.
“Sammy Lee was a giant of a man despite his small frame, which he often joked out,” said LA84 president emeritus Anita L. DeFrantz. “He faced enormous odds as a Korean American during the 1930’s and 1940’s in Southern California. After he finally was able to compete, he brought home the gold in his events. Sharing his knowledge, he trained young Greg Louganis and sent him on his way to enduring success. Lee remained true to the Olympic ideals throughout his life. He was truly a giant.”
“In the diving community, as soon as Sammy Lee stepped onto the pool deck, he had a large presence,” said Oscar Delgado, LA84’s Director of Partnerships & Development and member of the team that won the 2004 US Nationals Diving team title. “He made a huge impact not just an athlete, but as a coach. He was a very proud American, having represented this country at the Olympics and in the military.”
He is survived by his wife, Roz, two children, and three grandchildren.
A Celebration of Life for Dr. Lee will be held on Saturday, January 14, at the USC Town & Gown Ballroom.
Read Lee’s full 1990 interview as part of the foundation’s collection of Olympian Oral Histories.