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Recognizing Asian and Pacific American Month

In recognition of Asian and Pacific American Month, we look at the life of Dr. Sammy Lee, the legendary Olympian and barrier-breaker who called Huntington Beach home for the last two decades of his life.

Sammy Lee was born in Fresno, California, the son of Korean immigrants who ran a small “chop suey” restaurant. When his family moved to Southern California, he was inspired by the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, which led him to transition from gymnastics to diving. Due to racial discrimination, he could only access his local pool on “International Day,” the day before the water was drained and replaced. Undeterred, his coach dug a sand pit in his backyard for Lee to practice diving.  

He won his first national championship in 1942 and went on to study at Occidental College and medical school. Despite the academic demands, he claimed another national championship in 1946. Dr. Lee graduated from the University of Southern California in 1947 with a medical degree.

In 1948, after joining the U.S. Army, he qualified for the Olympic Games, where he won a gold medal for platform diving and a bronze medal for springboard diving–the first-ever Olympic gold won by an Asian-American man. Following his Olympic success, he served with the Army Medical Corps in Korea, providing medical care to servicemembers and even the President of South Korea. He later returned to compete in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, winning two more gold medals before retiring from competitive diving.

Dr. Lee then transitioned to coaching and mentoring notable divers like Bob Webster and Greg Louganis. In 1954, he became a “Goodwill Ambassador,” traveling to nearly a dozen countries, including India and Pakistan, to represent the United States through talks and diving demonstrations. This earned him the nickname “Diving Diplomat.”

Back in the U.S., he opened a successful medical practice in Anaheim with his wife, Rosalind. Among his many accolades, Dr. Lee received the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award for the best amateur athlete in the nation – the first athlete of color to receive this honor. He also secured a place in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, co-founded the Korean-Heritage Library at USC, and was commemorated with “Sammy Lee Square” in Los Angeles’ Koreatown and the “Dr. Sammy Lee Medical and Health Sciences Magnet Elementary School” in L.A.

In his late years, Dr. Lee moved to Huntington Beach, where he lived for the last two decades of his life. A passionate golfer, he played weekly at the Meadowlark Golf Course, where he achieved a “hole-in-one” on the second hole. Dr. Lee passed away in 2016 at 96, leaving a legacy of resilience, achievement, and service.