Less than 5 foot 2 inches tall, it is hard to imagine this elderly man of small stature to be a two-time Olympian honored by so many accolades. Dr. Samuel “Sammy” Lee, a Korean American physician who has left an indelible mark as an American champion diver, is still a force to be reckoned with.
His achievements as a diver are well documented. He won three Olympic medals, a gold medal in the 10-meter platform and a bronze in the three-meter springboard competitions from 1948 Olympic Games in London; another gold medal was won in the 10 meter platform from Helsinki in 1952. As the oldest person to win a gold medal in diving at age 32, Dr. Lee, the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States, was also the first male diver to win consecutive diving gold medals. He was the first Asian American to be awarded in 1953 the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award as outstanding U.S. amateur athlete.
Being a star athlete and coach was just another title to many he will receive in his lifetime. He received his medical degree from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1947, later becoming an ear, nose and throat specialist. A fervent patriot, he served in World War II and as a Major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in South Korea from 1953–55. According to an anecdote, the Army asked Major Lee to treat then South Korean President Syngman Rhee for an ear infection. “Yes, I took care of Syngman Rhee. It was severe “otitis externa,” due to his scratching,” said Lee. President Rhee in turn organized a ceremony at the Blue House (Korean White House) and honored Lee for his Sullivan Award.
Dr. David Ko, editor in chief of WKMJ, and Dr. Jinha Park, board member of WKMO, visited Dr. Lee to talk about his illustrious life and the time when only a few Asian Americans practiced medicine. Cheerfully welcoming them into his home, Dr. Lee reminisced fondly his old mentor. “My hero is Dr. Kihyung Kwon, who could do seven open heart surgeries a day, whereas other heart surgeons took seven hours to operate just one case,” he said with chuckles. “There weren’t many of us – Asian American medical doctors – back then, but we were skillful physicians dedicated to our patients and the practice of medicine. I would like to congratulate WKMO for continuing that legacy by extending tender loving care to all Americans and beyond, and showing how compassionate Koreans are.”
Dr. Lee’s life journey had a humble start in California’s San Joaquin Valley, born to Korean parents who emigrated from Korea. The Lees had tried truck farming in Fresno, which was destroyed by fire before they moved to Bunker Hill where they opened a grocery store. Raised in Highland Park, Lee encountered many obstacles due to wide spread racism and inequality in America, as people of colors, including Asians, were often discriminated. But those difficulties did not deter him from embracing his American dream, a value instilled by his father Soonkee Rhee who spoke to young Lee about inner fortitude and the importance of citizenship.
Lee was a boy scout at Yorkdale Grammar School and was cheerleader at Luther Burbank Junior High School. While at Franklin High School, he became an all “A” student and voted to be the first nonwhite student body president in 1939. His turning point in life came when he graduated from Occidental College in 1943, the year he lost his father to a massive brain hemorrhage. He had promised his father to become a medical doctor, so he got into USC where he also joined the Army reserves to pay for his tuition.
There, he enrolled in an accelerated program that condensed a four-year medical curriculum into two years and nine months. Due to the outbreak of World War II, the United States was desperately in need of doctors. Struggling to keep up with studies, he even flunked out of school at one point.
However, helped by friends from fraternities who shared copies of past exams, Lee graduated from USC Medical School in June 1946 and was as - signed to the McCornack Army Hospital in Pasa - dena as first lieutenant.
Dr. Lee joked that he became a great diver, be - cause “Every time I did poorly on an exam, I would go to the pool to dive and relax.” He went on to be - come an Olympic diving champion in 1948 along side Miller Anderson and Bruce Harlan. He would finish his residency in ear, nose and throat diseas - es at Letterman Army Hospital and was assigned to the 121st EVAC hospital outside of Seoul. In 1954, Lee became Goodwill Sports Ambassador for the U.S. in Southeast Asia.
He went into private practice after resigning his Regular Army Commission as Major and hoped to establish a medical practice in Santa Ana by the mid-1950s. But local doctors weren’t supportive of his move, while developers in Garden Grove refused to sell him a house despite his highly re - spectable reputation as an Olympian. The Lees were able to secure their home only after Scott Ne - whall, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, and even conservative presses such as The San - ta Ana Register and Long Beach Press Telegram came to the Lees’ defense. Newhall said, “The story of Major Lee’s reception in Garden Grove will embarrass our country in the eyes of the world.”
Although he suffers from dementia since 2013, Dr. Lee remains in great spirit and health, with years of hard work and glory behind him. He has been honored as a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame, with a landmark in Los Angeles’ Koreatown dedicated to him as the Sammy Lee Square in 2010. Recently, Central Region Elementary School #20 was renamed the Dr. Sammy Lee Medical and Health Sciences Magnet School in 2013
Beaming as he talks about his two children, Pamela and Sammy II, and three grandchildren he adores, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I no longer worry about heaven because I get to play with three an - gels on planet Earth.” Dr. Lee is a true role model for rising above harsh discrimination and the naysayers who doubted that he could achieve excellence as both a physician and an athlete. Here is to his lasting legacy of the American dream and undefeated spirit that live on in all of us.
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