A somersault off a Highland Park diving board catapulted Sammy Lee into Olympic history

Sammy Lee diving in Helsinki, 1952 | Courtesy of Occidental College Special Collections and College Archives

Sammy Lee diving in Helsinki, 1952 | Courtesy of Occidental College Special Collections and College Archives

Diver Sammy Lee, who died last week at age 96, was the first Asian-American to win an Olympic gold medal, earning his first gold in London in 1948 and a second in Helsinki in 1952.  But years before he went on to win Olympic glory, Lee, a Korean-American, had already attracted attention and acclaim on the diving boards of Highland Park and Occidental College in Eagle Rock.

After a fire destroyed their Fresno farmhouse, Lee’s family moved in 1925 to Highland Park, where the family operated a grocery and chop suey restaurant, said the L.A. Times obituary. He was 12 when the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics games inspired him to become a championship athlete. But a champion of what? Lee, according to the L.A. Times, apparently found the answer the same year in Highland Park:

“That summer, while playing at a Highland Park pool, a friend challenged him to do more than a single flip off the diving board. With his friend jumping behind him to provide extra lift, Lee immediately did a 1 1/2 somersault and ran home to tell his family he had found his sport, the Journal of Olympic History reported in 2002.”

Lee attended Franklin High School, where he refined his somersault skills by leaping off a “diving board into a sandpit in his coach’s backyard.”  He was also elected as student body president of the school, ignoring a vice principal who said that a nonwhite student had never ever won the election.  “My fellow classmates do not look at me as Korean,” Lee recalled in an L.A. Times story. “They look at me as a fellow American.”

But not everyone welcomed Lee and his family.  In a video created by Occidental College, which Lee attended after graduating from Franklin, he recounted how one of the neighbors demanded that the family get out of the neighborhood.

At Occidental, Lee emerged as a national champion during state and national competitions. It was also where he met his wife, Rosalind, of more than 60 years. “I was very fortunate that Occidental College supported me 100%,” he said in the video.

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One comment

  1. Great story!

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