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Sammy Lee (1920–2016)

by Legacy Staff

Sammy Lee, a two-time Olympic diving champion, died Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, of pneumonia in Newport Beach, California, according to The Associated Press. He was 96.

Lee won gold medals in platform diving in the 1948 and 1952 Olympic games. He was the first diver to repeat platform gold, and at 32 years of age in 1952, the oldest up to that date. He was also the first Asian-American to win a gold medal for the U.S. He also earned a bronze medal in the 3-meter springboard event in 1948.

Lee was born Aug. 1, 1920, in Fresno, California, to Korean immigrant parents. He was inspired by the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles to become a diver. By 1942, he was the AAU national champion in platform and springboard diving, becoming the first person of color to win that title.


After his own diving career ended, he coached the U.S. Olympic team in 1960 and 1964. He coached Olympic champions Pat McCormick, Bob Webster, and four-time champion Greg Louganis.

He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.

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Apart from athletics, he earned a medical degree from the University of Southern California School of Medicine in 1947. He was an ear, nose, and throat specialist. He also served in the U.S. Army for 13 years, retiring with the rank of major.

In 2010, Sammy Lee Square was dedicated to him in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. In 2013, a Los Angeles elementary school was named the Sammy Lee Medical and Health Science Magnet School in his honor.

“Through his multitude of achievements and awards, (my father) treasured his family most,” his son, Sammy II, told the Orange County Register. “He often stated, ‘The medals fade but my wife, daughter, son, and grandchildren become more golden and precious during the last two-minute drill of my game.’”

Lee is survived by wife Roz, children Pamela and Sammy II, and three grandchildren.

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