sammy-lee-on-the-podium-1952-olympics
Sammy Lee on the podium (center) at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics
  • He was a doctor.
  • He was an officer in the US Army, serving in Korea.
  • He was an Olympian, a two-time gold medalist in platform diving.
  • And he was a coach of Olympians, both formally and informally, not just of American medalists, but of divers around the world.

He was Dr. Sammy Lee. And on December 2, 2016, this great man passed away.

I am an Asian American, and I am proud of the example my grandfather, and my father – both of whom are people I can openly say are my role models. But for Asian Americans, we sometimes complain about our lack of Asian American heroes on the big screen, in the big leagues, in the government. It’s a silly thought of course – examples abound and I won’t list them here (because I am Asian).

But if I were to mention one special role model in the sporting world, it would have to be Dr. Sammy Lee, a Korean American and a diving legend. To be honest, until I started my book project on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I was not so aware of him, although I was familiar with the name. However, when I met diving Olympians like Frank Gorman, Soren Svejstrup, Jeanne Collier, and Bob Webster, I realized that Sammy Lee transcended race, that he was a role model for the world, particularly for the world of diving.

sammy-leeHe inspired: He was the very best in platform diving in the world, winning the gold medal in the 10 meter dive at the 1948 London Games, and the 1952 Helsinki Games, in addition to being a medical doctor and an officer in the US Army.

He knew how to get the best out of you: In this article, two-time gold medalist Webster told me that Lee knew how to light a fire in your belly, how to believe in yourself, and how he would do it with equal parts pressure and humor. He was regimented in his training plan for you and he was strict in making you follow it, but he got results out of you.

He was committed to you, in many cases, for life: Lee took diving champion Greg Louganis into his home to train him for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In this article, I wrote that he spent time coaching promising young divers who showed up without coaches, eventual champions like Gorman and Svejstrup, and always stayed in touch.

Collier told me that Lee would always have a camera and would make sure he took a picture of the divers he knew as they stood on the medal podium, and then send it to them. “He is one of the greatest people on the planet,” gushed Collier.

Said Svejstrup, who said that at a time in his career when he was inexperienced and unsure of himself, Lee stood up for him. “I was grateful, and of course I lost my heart to Sammy forever.”

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Frank Gorman and Sammy Lee at the 1964 Olympic TrialsFrank Gorman and Sammy Lee at the 1964 Olympic Trials
Frank Gorman and Sammy Lee at the 1964 Olympic Trials

“I was 10 years old when Sammy won his first and second Olympic medals at the 1948 Games,” Frank Gorman of diving legend, Sammy Lee. “We were not able to view his triumphs on television in those days but the newspapers were full of good coverage  and I thought that he was the greatest competitor in London.”

Gorman, who won silver in the 3-meter diving competition in Tokyo, would often go as a younger, less known diver to competitions without the support of a coach. If Sammy Lee was there, he always lent a hand. “I finally got to meet Sammy at the USA National Diving Championships in the early 1950s at Yale University. I might have been the youngest competitor and was there without a coach. During the workout I met Sammy and before long he was helping me with some of my dives. I was thrilled to have the World Champ watching me. Sammy was low-key, patient and explained clearly what I should do to improve my efforts. In future years I frequently showed up at meets without a coach and Sammy was always there for me.”

Søren Svejstrup also competed as a diver at the Tokyo Games, had a very similar interaction with Lee. “I went to a meet in Los Angeles in 1960,” wrote Svjestrup. “I was all alone, and still not experienced in diving meets. And I did not know how to do a good twisting dive from the 10 meter platform. The dive I executed was a handstand, fall over where I end up diving feet first after a half salto. I’m sure no one had seen such a dive in the US because everybody laughed, but not Sammy. He told everybody that it was a classic European dive and he would give it a high mark. And if anybody wanted to try the same dive, he would like to see it. Nobody did. At the meet, Sammy scored me a ten. I was grateful, and of course I lost my heart to Sammy forever.”

Sammy Lee and Soren Svejstrup
Sammy Lee and Soren Svejstrup

Dr. Sammy Lee, a medical MD who served with the US Army Medical Corps in Korea, winner of the James E Sullivan Award as the most outstanding athlete in the United States in 1953, and a repeat champion in the 10 meter platform dive, winning gold in London in 1948, and Helsinki in 1952. In addition to countless stories of helping divers all over the world, he coached Olympic divers Pat McCormick, Bob Webster, and Greg Louganis. August 1 is Dr. Sammy Lee’s birthday! And on this day