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Sammy Lee
Who Is

Heading East-Many interviews were conducted to help research the Heading East exhibit. Here you can find excerpts of interviews with key Asian Americans.Dr.Sammy Lee

Biography: Born in Fresno in 1920 to Korean immigrants who worked on a Hawaiian plantation. Dr. Lee was the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal. He was awarded the gold medal for the 10-meter platform at the 1948 Olympic games in London. Four years later, he went on to win the gold in the 10-meter and the bronze in the 3-meter springboard in the Helsinki Olympics.

His accomplishments were not limited to the athletic field. Dr. Lee was a student-athlete at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, where he received his M.D. in 1947. He went on to serve in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Korea from 1943-45, where he specialized in the diseases of the ear. In 1953, while serving his tour of duty in Korea, he learned that he received the James E. Sullivan Trophy, which is given to the outstanding American athlete of the year.

In 1968 Dr. Lee was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, followed by his induction into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990. His many other achievements include: serving as a member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from 1971-80 and coaching the U.S. diving team for the 1960 and '64 Olympics. During the 1976 Montreal Olympics, he coached Greg Louganis, who won a silver medal in the 10-meter platform.


Dr. Lee talks about the Olympic Dream: Many years ago -- fifty-six years ago -- I first got the Olympic Dream when they had it here in Los Angeles in 1932. And, I used to go to the produce market on San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. When we came through that tunnel that used to be the Broadway Tunnel, coming into the great metropolis of Los Angeles, all these flags of various countries were on it. And, I asked my father, "What are all these flags? He said, "They're having the Olympic games."And, I said, "Well, what is that?" He said, "That's where they crown the greatest athletes in the world." And, I'll never forget the chill that went up and down my spine. I said, "Papa, someday I'm going to be an Olympic champ." And, he chuckled and said, "What in?" I said, "I don't know, but I'll find it."

So, that summer -- playing follow the leader and challenging my peers -- they couldn't do what I was doing. All day long I was doing front somersaults and back somersaults, and an African American kid by the name of Hart Crumb standing by the pool said, "Hey, Sammy why do you do only one somersault?" I said, "I don't know how to do any more." He said, "Well, I'll tell you what. I'll bounce the board, and when I yell, you come out."

So, he taught me how to do a forward one-half somersault. I was so thrilled I ran home and I told my dad, "Papa, I found the sport I'm going to be an Olympic champ in... diving!" He didn't know what that was, but I said, "Well, you have to come out to the pool to see what diving is all about." And, I guess he must have seen the eagerness in my eyes, and he said, "Son, I'll back you all the way, but you have to promise me you have to study as much as you're going to be diving." And, I've been very fortunate to have been able to fulfill all of my Olympic Dreams plus my professional dreams.

Dr. Lee's views on academics and sports: I had always admired the athlete. I never admired the brightest student -- it did not impress me whatsoever. But the fellow who could fight the best or who was the fastest runner -- that's the one I admired. And, I wanted to be a part of that admiration from my classmates, and that's why I went into diving so thoroughly. But, it was my father who said, "Remember to exercise your mind as well as your body," and I had to goals in life: one, to become a doctor of medicine, and second, to be an Olympic champion. And, as the war came along in 1940, 41 I had already started my pre-med school and had become a doctor of medicine by the time the 1948 Olympics came around.

On how it felt to represent America as a Korean American:: Well, first, I wanted to show my fellow Americans that we, Koreans, had a place in American society. My immediate friends knew what a Korean was because they knew me, but leaving my own vicinity of Highland Park, California -- other people didn't know what a Korean was.
They said, "You were Japanese, Chinese." And, I said, "Well, that's an entirely separate civilization. They had their own language which I cannot speak, but we are a separate entity." So, when I did get to represent the United States, I was the only Asian American to be on the U.S. Olympic team in swimming and diving. When I won the gold medal then in 1948 -- I'd won the bronze medal the week before on the 3 meter springboard -- I felt that this was the first time that an Asian American was in the mainstream of the American sporting picture.

Training to become a diver early in his career: A coach named James Frederick Ryan, six-foot four inch, two hundred seventy-five pound Irish American said, "In order for you guys to really learn how to dive, you're going to have to come to my home. We're going to build a sand pit." I said, "What's that? He says, "I'll buy the diving board, and I'll buy the equipment, but you guys have got to dig the sand pit. And,I'll buy a ton of sand."

So, that winter [my friend and diving partner] Dick and I dug a hole. And, he brought the diving board, we mixed the cement, and be put the board one meter up. On the first day of practice, he said, "Now you're going to do front somersaults. Then you are going to do two somersaults." And, I thought, "Oh, brother. Two somersaults? The sand is level with the springboard, if not higher." He says, "Well, are you going to catch it if you don't make it? If you're dumb enough not to make it, you deserve to die." And, so that's the way we trained and, by golly, when we had to do double somersaults, we went for the somersault, in fear of hurting yourself. Fortunately, we didn't. And, that's how we trained. I trained there seven days a week while I was going through high school -- rain or shine, I was there.

Overcoming his doubters: I was running for student body president at Franklin High School. There, I was athletic manager, head yell leader, vice-president of the student body. Then, I wanted to be the first non-white president. So, the vice-principal, named Fred Erickson, called me in and says, "You know, this high school has never had a non-white president. And, I would advise you not to run because: one, you didnt play football, and, well, don't break your heart. Forget it."

Overcoming his doubters I was running for student body president at Franklin High School. There, I was athletic manager, head yell leader, vice-president of the student body. Then, I wanted to be the first non-white president. So, the vice-principal, named Fred Erickson, called me in and says, "You know, this high school has never had a non-white president. And, I would advise you not to run because: one, you didnt play football, and, well, don't break your heart. Forget it."

The racial tension during the '40s: After Pearl Harbor, in the old days, we used to wear a big button: it had a Korean and an American flag and it said, "I'm a Korean, not a Jap." Now, I used to wear this button in 1942, when I was going back to the National Championships. I happened to get on this troop train -- part of the train was for passengers and the other for troops. And, I was walking through to go to the dinig room, and I bumped in to a couple of the Japanese Americans that were on the Hawaiian swim team. And, they said, "Hey, Sam! How are you?"

I had this button on, and they looked at the button, and I said, "I'm really embarrassed that I have this button on." They said, "Aw, Sam. We understand. Don't worry about it." But, I took the button off, and never wore it again. I used to get stopped in the streets of Los Angeles, and people would say,"Hey, you Jap! What are you doing on the streets?"I said, "I'm not a Jap. I'm Korean." And, at that time, my attitude towards Japanese had changed. Prior to that
time, as Koreans, we were taken at four or five years old to the demonstration of Japanese: what the Japanese did to the Koreans, killing ten throusand, maiming so many thousands when they asked for independence.

His feeling on winning the gold medal in the 10 meter platform in the 1948
Olympics:

How did I feel on my last dive? The forward three and a half somersault that I put in the book? Some 8 years before, that's what I thought of. Here is my baby, the forward three and a half somersault. And, if I come out backwards, I cannot go through another four years in trying to make the Olympic team. Sixteen years for this particular moment. All I could hear was the trickle of the water. I damn near fainted. And, all I remember was the sound of the tower. When I hit that water, it was tingling, like in the way you get slapped in the face.

When I broke the surface of the water and looked, I saw 10, 9, 9.5, 7, 9. I realized I was Olympic champion. And that was the second time in history a man walked on water when I went over to get my gold medal. And, I remember when I was up there in the stands. During the raising of the flag, the Star Spangled banner never sounded so beautiful. The red, white, and bllue of the flag was never so red, white, and blue. I thought I was dreaming. I thought I was listening to Jesse Owens' victory in 1936 when I sat glued to the radio and listened to Jesse Owens' victory. "It must be by the radio," I thought. "No, no, it's happening to me. I'm actually Olympic champion!"

 

 

 

 

 

   
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