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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Jeanne & Ken Tokyo 1
Ken and Jeanne in Tokyo, from the collection of Jeanne Collier

He was a 19-year-old university student from Illinois. She was an 18-year-old high school student from Arizona. They would go on to be diving’s power couple in Tokyo as Ken Sitzberger won gold in the men’s 3-meter springboard diving competition, and Jeanne Collier took silver in the women’s 3-meter springboard competition.

Collier told me that there was some resistance by the coaches to their dating during final preparations for the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo, but she said there was never really anything to worry about regarding their readiness.

We met in 1962 at a Nationals. He was from Chicago and I was from Phoenix. We had a letter writing campaign. He went to Indiana. I was still in high school. We got to know each other. So as we prepared for Tokyo, he and I hung out together. The coaches didn’t like that. But it was harmless. At that time, we would have time off, talk at meals, but the focus had to be on training.

Ken & Jeanne Wedding
Ken and Jeanne on their wedding day, from the collection of Jeanne Collier

And the results spoke for themselves. Not only did Sitzberger and Collier win medals at the Tokyo Summer Games, they did so in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion.

In Sitzberger’s case, he was trailing USA teammate Frank Gorman going into the penultimate 9th dive of the competition. While Gorman had his worst dive of the competition, Sitzberger had his best, leapfrogging Gorman into the lead. Despite a strong final dive from Gorman, Sitzberger was able to hold on to win. As his coach, Jerry Darda, was quoted as saying, Sitzberger was a confident person, who a year before, despite winning bronze at the Pan American Games, told Darda that he would win gold in Tokyo.

“Kenny said right-out: ‘I’m going to win the gold medal.’  I didn’t want to ruin his confidence, but I asked him how he could be sure.  He had barely made the team and missed fourth by only five points.  But Kenny had analyzed the whole thing, the strengths and weaknesses of the other divers who were ranked one, two, three in the world – they were his competition – and he knew they’d all be going to training camp for a few weeks before the Olympics.  He told me ‘Those guys are going to see me in training camp and that’s going to help me.  They’re going to feel a lot of extra pressure after they see me dive every day.  They’re going to realize I just don’t miss.'”

In Collier’s case, she was trailing her teammate Patsy Willard as they entered the final optional dives, the three dives where the level of difficulty can send you crashing out of the race, or propel you to victory. The reigning Olympic champion, Ingrid Engel-Kramer of East Germany, led the competition from start to finish, and took gold for the second consecutive Olympics. Willard had a 3-point lead on Collier entering the optional dives, as well as the experience of battling the Olympic pressures in Rome four years before. On top of that, Collier did poorly on her first optional dive – “a forward 2 ½ somersault, which was horrible.” But she pulled herself together for a come-back.

“I had a talk with myself. I had the highest degree of difficulty. I had my two highest difficulty dives left and they were to be my best dives.” Collier snatched silver from her

Roy_summer vacation_1967 maybe
Roy, sometime between the Tokyo and Mexico City Olympic Games.

On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.

  1. A Helicopter View of US-USSR Relations, Olympic Style
  2. American Gymnast Makoto Sakamoto and Memories of Home: Post-War Shinjuku
  3. Arnold Gordon (Part 1): Befriending Judy Garland at Manos in Shinjuku
  4. The Banning of Headgear in Boxing: The Convoluted World of Protecting Our Athletes
  5. Clumsy Handoff, Beautiful Result: A World Record Finish for the American 4X400 Relay Team in Tokyo
  6. Coach Hank Iba: The Iron Duke of Defense Who Led the Men’s Basketball Team to Gold in 1964
  7. Creativity by Committee: The 2020 Olympic Emblem and the Rio Olympic Mascots?
  8. Crowded, Noisy, Dirty, Impersonal: Tokyo in the 1960s
  9. The Dale McClements’ Diary: From Athlete to Activist
  10. Doug Rogers, Star of the Short Film “Judoka”: A Fascinating Look at Japan, and the Foreigner Studying Judo in the 1960s
  11. Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story
  12. Escape from Manchuria: How the Father of an Olympian Left a Legacy Beyond Olympic Proportions
  13. Fame: Cover Girl and Canadian Figure Skater Sandra Bezic
  14. Frank Gorman: Harvard Star, Tokyo Olympian, and Now Inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame
  15. The Geesink Eclipse – The Day International Judo Grew Up
  16. India Beats Pakistan in Field Hockey: After the Partition, the Sporting Equivalent of War
  17. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  18. On Being Grateful: Bob Schul
  19. Protesting Via Political Cartoons: Indonesia Boycotts the Tokyo Olympics
  20. The Sexist Sixties: A Sports Writers Version of “Mad Men” Would Make the Ad Men Blush
  21. “Swing” – The Danish Coxless Fours Found It, and Gold, in Tokyo
  22. Toby Gibson: Boxer, Lawyer, Convict
  23. Vesper Victorious Under Rockets Red Glare – A Dramatic Finish to One of America’s Greatest Rowing Accomplishments
  24. What it Means to Be an Olympian: Bill Cleary Remembers
  25. Who is that Bald-Headed Beauty: The Mystery of the Soviet Javelin Champion
GormanAndreasonSitzberger_1964
Larry Andreasen, Ken Sitzberger and Frank Gorman lead an American sweep of the medals in the 3-meter springboard competition at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.

 

“I was having breakfast in the Olympic Village,” Frank Gorman related to me several months ago. “There are people from all over the world there, some of their names and faces are in the papers. And suddenly you’re mingling with them. One day, a bunch of guys from the US track team sat down at my table and we chatted. I said I was on the swim team, a diver. The man I was talking with asked if I knew a man named Gorman, and then he said ‘I heard he’s the best we got.’ Well, that was Bob Hayes, and he’s looking at me like I’m special.”

Frank Gorman, from my home town of New York, was special. After just missing the cut to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he won the diving trials for the three-meter springboard competition convincingly. People believed Gorman was the best the US had, and was expected to win gold.

Gorman went on to win silver at the Tokyo Olympiad, become a diving judge at the 1968 Olympic Games as well as World Championships, Pan American Games, High Diving and Cliff Diving competitions. One of the most active members of the US Diving community, Frank Gorman, as it was announced on November 18, will be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame next June.

The youngest of six kids, Gorman got a lot of attention from his athletic parents and siblings. The family would go out to Lake Tonetta in Brewster, New York for summer vacations, and his older brothers and sister would take to throwing Gorman in the air teaching him how to do acrobatic tricks. So flipping off the pier on a small diving board came easy to him. Gorman was so good as a high school student that he was recruited by a Harvard swim team alumnus over three years – Gorman would visit the Crimson campus, room with members of the swim team, and eventually enroll at Harvard, where he never lost a diving competition.

The Olympics are the meeting ground for the best of the best. And at the Tokyo Games, in the beautiful Tange-designed “National Gymnasium” where the swimming and diving competitions were held, Gorman held the lead in the 3-meter springboard competition after 8 dives, with only two remaining.

“It was difficult to sleep the night before competing,” Gorman told me. “I’m lying on my bed trying to sleep, seeing my dives over and over again. I would finally get to sleep around 5. And then I’d go and compete. There was a lot of waiting in between dives, so I took a lot of naps. But during the competition, I was good, focused.” And after 8 dives, the gold was Gorman’s to take.

Gorman explained that when he is in good form, he feels the water in a special way and in the right order. “Time slows down, I feel the water with my fingertips, then my head, my chest…but on that ninth dive, my lower legs did not enter the water the right way and I felt the water on my back where I shouldn’t have felt it, and I knew immediately that I was short. Now, just before that dive somebody on the deck said to me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go LONG’. Now why he said that, I do not know. Because I was always a little short on the Back 2 & 1/2. Anyway, it messed with my mind and I did not go long – I went shorter than I ever had before. I kicked too early, kicking at the board instead of above the board, so I didn’t make it to the vertical I needed. I got low scores. That was devastating. I had gotten straight 9’s on that dive at the Trials.”

GormanFrankTokyo1964-1
Frank Gorman competing at the Tokyo Olympics.

Now behind in the score and entering his tenth and final dive, his coach advised him to ease down the determination and intensity to make sure Gorman executed well enough to give him a chance at gold. But Gorman thought that this would be the last dive of his career, and that “I have to go for it!” Gorman gave it 100% and had his best dive of the competition. You can see that amazing dive here!

But by that time, even his best effort could not help him climb his way back to the top. His American teammate, Ken Sitzberger, took gold instead, and with diver, Larry Andreasen, led a USA sweep of the gold, silver and bronze medals for the three-meter springboard. In fact, the U.S. team won eight of the twelve Olympic diving medals, making for a very happy diving team.

frank_gorman_1964_2

“Yes, I didn’t get the gold,” said Gorman. “It was a big disappointment. But I look around at other disappointments, and silver is not so bad. I am very grateful. We were three happy guys. As far as I know. It had never been done before. And never done since.”

Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo,
Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News” Agency

At every Olympics, there are people who stand out brighter than others. In 1964, everybody had a Billy Mills story. The legendary Native American champion of the 10,000 meter race, Mills was not expected to medal in Tokyo, and thus appeared to come out of nowhere to win one of the most dramatic races in Tokyo.

Silver medalist  3-meter springboard diver, Frank Gorman, remembers sitting in the Olympic Village common area watching the Olympic Games on TV. “He was a guy I didn’t know until I got to Tokyo. In between our work outs we would sit and watch the games on the local TV, just the two of us. I understood that he was training hard, and that nobody thought he had a prayer, nobody was putting any money on him. But he told me he was excited about being there, and that he had been working his whole life at being the best.”

Gold medalist 400-meer runner, Ulis Williams, watched Mills in the stadium. “Towards the end, I think the last 200 meters, we see him picking up speed. We couldn’t believe it, and we’re shouting ‘Look at him go!’ He tried to go around a guy, and they were moving to block him, but he burst through the center with his arms up. We absolutely couldn’t believe it.”

Billy Mills (middle) and Ron Clarke (right) in 10000 meter run, from the book,
Billy Mills and Ron Clarke in 10000 meter run, from the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16”

For gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto, he remembers watching the 10,000 meter race on a black and white TV in a common room. “I remember it’s the final lap. A bunch of us, 30 of us, we were just yelling our heads off! And he wins the thing. What a dramatic finish! Mills comes out of nowhere and wins!”

Peter Snell remembers agreeing with his teammates that Australian Ron Clarke was a definite favorite to win, and had no expectations for any American, let alone Billy Mills to be in the running. As he wrote in his biography, No Bugles, No Drums, “This is no personal reflection on the tremendous performance of the winner Billy Mills. It’s just that Americans are traditional masters of the short track events and we other nations are naturally not too keen to see that mastery extended to the longer races.”

Snell, the incredible middle-distance runner from New Zealand, who won gold in both the 800 and1500 meters races in Tokyo wrote that “the 10,000 lives in my memory as one of the most exciting

From
From “THE GAMES OF THE XVIII OLYMPIAD TOKYO 1964: The Official Report of the Organizing Committee.”

All we see is the pomp and circumstance. But waiting for the start of the opening ceremony of an Olympics Games can be a dull and tiring affair.

As 400-meter individual medley swimmer, Dick Roth, wrote, after getting bussed to a large staging area on a beautiful Autumn day on October 10, 1964, all they did was wait. “We milled around for hours in our new uniforms, awaiting our turn to march in, not daring to sit down in our white pants or skirts. That part really wasn’t fun.”

The American, Roth, won gold in his event, so the wait was worth it. But if an Olympian’s event is in the day’s following the opening ceremony, they are often encouraged not to participate in the team march into the stadium. That’s what American diver, Frank Gorman, was advised.

“The diving events began the day after,” the silver medalist in the 3-meter springboard told me. “So we were cautioned by our coaches to not go. We stayed in the Village dormitories. By that time, we were so pleased that the coaches advised us to stay. You had to go five hours in advance and stand outside waiting for things to get organized. They spent 8 or 12 hours participating in the ceremonies. We would have been worn out.”

And yet, for many Olympians, it’s an experience of a life time. Wrote Roth, “It was overwhelming really – bright blue sky, the entire stadium filled with 75,000 applauding, cheering people, all of us athletes standing in formation on the field. The track was ringed with Japanese, dancing in colorful costumes. The Emperor was standing and waving. Flags and more flags. Did you ever wonder what’s going through an athlete’s mind during the Opening Ceremonies? In my case, nothing besides a bucketful of awe!”