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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Dibiasi Webster and Gompf_Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency
On the Medal Stand at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: Klaus Dibiasi (Italy) Bob Webster (USA), Tom Gompf (USA)_from the book Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo News Agency

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.

Bob Webster profile
Click on image to see footage of Webster diving at the Tokyo Olympics.

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).

Sammy Lee card

“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