by Guest Contributor Jen Wang, originally published at Disgrasian
The last time the Olympics were in London in 1948 was also the first time an Asian American won a gold medal in the Games. That distinction belongs to 91 year-old Dr. Samuel “Sammy” Lee, who was born in Fresno, CA, and is of Korean descent.
Dr. Samuel “Sammy” Lee, 91, was the first Asian-American to win an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. at the 1948 London games, and the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic platform diving.
As a twelve-year-old in 1932, Lee dreamed of becoming a diver, but at the time Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans were only allowed to use Fresno’s Brookside Pool on Wednesdays, on what was called “international day”: the day before the pool was scheduled to be drained and refilled with clean water. Because Lee needed a place to practice and could not regularly use the public pool, his coach dug a pit in his backyard and filled it with sand. Lee practiced by jumping into the pit.
Lee went on to become an ear, nose, and throat doc, serve in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Korean War–wonder what that was like for a Korean American–and, later, coach diving legend Greg Louganis to a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics. He’s a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, has a square named after him in LA’s K-town, and is now retired and living in Huntington Beach, CA.
What a life.