Sammy Lee, who endured racial prejudice and discrimination to become the first Asian American man to earn Olympic gold and who later coached fellow divers Bob Webster and Greg Louganis to Olympic success, died Dec. 2 at a hospital in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 96.
The cause was pneumonia, said his son, Sammy Lee II.
The son of Korean immigrants in Fresno, Calif., Dr. Lee worked into his early 70s as an ear, nose and throat doctor.He set out to compete in the Olympics after watching the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles, and he settled on diving as his sport after a friend taught him how to do a one-and-a-half somersault.
Dr. Lee went on to earn three Olympic medals, beginning at the 1948 Games in London, where he took home a bronze medal in the 3-meter springboard and a gold medal in 10-meter platform diving. He earned his second consecutive gold medal — a first for any diver — in platform diving at the 1952 Games in Helsinki.
His gold in London came two days after his friend Vicki Manalo Draves, a Filipino American diver who died in 2010, became the first Asian American to win a gold medal.
Like Dr. Lee, she began her career in California. Both divers trained at pools with discriminatory practices and under prejudiced coaches. At the Brookside Plunge pool in Pasadena, Dr. Lee, as well as other Asian, Latino and black men and boys, were allowed to swim only on Wednesdays, in a special session that the pool called “International Day.”
At the end of the day, Dr. Lee recalled, staff members pretended to drain the pool and refill it with fresh water to satisfy white patrons who refused to share the water with minorities.
Dr. Lee said that, beginning in high school, he honed his technique under a coach who encouraged him as an athlete but regularly addressed him with a racial slur. The coach had helped Egyptian diver Farid Simaika win a silver medal at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam and pressed the 5-foot-tall Dr. Lee to practice his somersaults seven days a week at a sand pit in his back yard.
“I was angered” by the racism, Dr. Lee later told the Los Angeles Times, “but I was going to prove that in America I could do anything.”
He won his first national diving championships in 1942, while a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, in springboard and platform. After leaving competitive diving to focus on his medical studies, he won another platform-diving championship in 1946.
Dr. Lee served as an Army doctor during the Korean War, rising to the rank of major and taking time off to compete in the Helsinki Olympics only at the insistence of his superiors. He was working at an Army hospital in Korea when he learned in 1953 that the Amateur Athletic Union had named him its athlete of the year.
He coached the U.S. men’s diving team — including Webster, a future hall-of-fame platform diver — at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, leading the team to a sweep of the gold and silver medals in springboard and platform, and went on to coach Webster to another gold in 1964. Dr. Lee also coached a teenage Louganis to his first Olympic medal, a silver in platform diving, in 1976.
In “My Soul Looks Back in Wonder” (2004), an oral history of the civil rights era by reporter Juan Williams, Dr. Lee recalled his shock at winning his first Olympic gold medal. When he hit the water during his medal-clinching dive, a forward three-and-a-half somersault, he thought he had miscalculated and done a belly flop.
“Everything was tingling,” he said. “And when I broke the surface, I was in pain. I looked up and saw my score — 9.5, 10. The pain stopped. When I walked out of that pool, it was the second time in history that man walked on water.”
Samuel Rhee was born in Fresno on Aug. 1, 1920. His father changed the family name, the older man later said, because “so many Americans believe I mean Lee when I say Rhee.”
Dr. Lee worked for several years at his parents’ chop suey restaurant and credited his father with inspiring his emotional fortitude in the face of racist taunts and threats.
He graduated from Occidental College in 1943 and from the University of Southern California’s medical school in 1947, and he married the former Rosalind Wong in 1950.
Besides his wife, of Huntington Beach, Calif., survivors include two children, Pamela Lee of Orinda, Calif., and Sammy Lee II of Stevenson Ranch, Calif.; and three grandchildren.
Dr. Lee continued to face discrimination even outside athletics. In 1954, looking for a home in Garden Grove, Calif., he said, he was turned away by a real estate agent who told him, “I’m sorry, Doctor, but I have to eat, and I’d lose my job for selling to a nonwhite.”
After a second agent rebuffed him, Dr. Lee wrote a letter to Robert Pierpoint, a CBS White House correspondent whom he had met during the Korean War. “Things have really improved,” Dr. Lee wrote sarcastically. “In the old days they used to say [racist epithets] and just slam the door in our face.”
Subsequent news coverage succeeded in drawing attention to Dr. Lee’s housing plight, with Vice President Richard M. Nixon, a native Californian, offering assistance in tracking down a property. Dr. Lee soon found one, according to the Los Angeles Times, through a Jewish real estate agent who said he knew discrimination firsthand.
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