It’s an oft-told tale – the aimless youth meets the experienced veteran who sees the potential the youth does not see.
Bob Webster was one such youth growing up in California in the 1950s. While Webster would accomplish the astonishing – winning gold medals in the 10-meter platform dive competition in two consecutive Olympics – he had no idea he had a career in diving in high school….until he met Sammy Lee.
“I was a gymnast growing up in the local YMCA, but when the gymnastics coach left town to take another job, we were left hanging,” Webster told me, referring to his time at Santa Ana High School. “That summer of my sophomore year, we went to the community pool and did somersaults into the water.” Webster explained that they were going to the pool to self-train themselves in gymnastics, but in essence, that is how he got his start in diving.
Webster graduated from high school and stayed local by going to Santa Ana Junior College, which did not even have a pool. More importantly though was what Santa Ana Junior College had very nearby – Sammy Lee. “Of all people, who sets up his practice there in Santa Ana? Dr. Sammy Lee! How lucky am I?”
Webster explained that one of his diving buddies actually walked into Dr. Lee’s office, and said something to the effect of – we got this kid who went to Santa Ana High School and you have to check him out. “How many times has he heard that,” thought Webster. But Webster did indeed set up a time to meet Dr. Lee, who was at this time, one of the most renown American Olympians of his time – a US Army medical doctor who had won gold in the 10-meter platform dive in 1948 (London) and 1952 (Helsinki).
“When I went to meet Sammy, I was a nervous wreck,” said Webster. “He watched me dive, and he said, ‘I think you can win in the Olympic Games.’ I didn’t have any goals, but Sammy gave me the greatest gift – he lit the fire in my belly. He got me to believe in myself. ‘Bob I will be glad to train you,’ he told me. ‘We can do it at my home.'”
In fact, Webster trained off of a diving board above a sand pit, set up in Dr. Lee’s backyard. “That is how it started. He told me, ‘here is what I expect from you. You have to focus on this. And I will coach you.’ He didn’t charge me. He got me to believe in myself.”
Webster remembered Dr. Lee as a taskmaster, which is exactly what he needed. “I had some talent and desire, and Sammy drew it out of me. He was my idol, but we also called him the little general. ‘Do this. Do that,’ he’d say. But I’d do everything he told me to do. He must have made me do dives over and over until it was right. But he also had a great sense of humor. When I was training for the 1960 games in Rome, if I missed a dive, he’d sing Arriverderci Rome.”
Said Dr. Lee of Webster, “Diving-wise, he was the greatest competitor I’ve ever coached. He really held up under competition, as both of his Olympic medals were by narrow margins. I told him early on that he could be an Olympic champion and Bob finally said, ‘If you’re serious, I’m serious.’ I wrote to the University of Michigan and told them I had the next Olympic champion right here at Santa Ana College. The rest is history.”
In the first half of the 1960s, Webster was the most dominant platform diver in the world, winning every platform event he entered from 1960 to 1964, including gold in the 1963 Pan American Games in Sao Paulo, and gold in the 1960 and 1964 Olympics.
Webster, who went on to coach diving at the University of Minnesota, Princeton University and the University of Alabama, used to have his gold medals in a display case where his wife put them. After a while, Webster took them down and put them under his bed. Eventually, he donated them to the University of Michigan where he competed as a student. To Webster, competing wasn’t about medals.
“I wasn’t there to win the medal so I could put it on the wall,” Webster told me. “I wanted to be the best at what I was doing. I was the best in the world. That is what I’m proud of. But when I was young, I had no idea that could happen, until Sammy Lee showed up. I had no idea. He showed up and he told me it was possible.”
Next month, Bob Webster will be inducted into the US Diving Rings of Honor Hall of Fame. Congratulations Bob!