How times have changed: the story of Dr. Sammy Lee

US Olympic Gold Medalist Sammy Lee

Sammy Lee on a diving tower.

Here’s an excerpt of an obituary from after Sammy Lee died at the age of 96.

Permission from
Sammy Lee with other divers

Sammy Lee coaches diver Paula Jean Myers

Gary Hall flag bearer

Sammy Lee, Olympic Gold Medalist and Doctor:

As a civilian, Lee discovered that his status as a veteran didn’t shield him from prejudice. He and his wife Rosalind were turned away when they wanted to buy a home in one part of Orange County. Eventually, they bought a home nearby from a sympathetic developer. Eventually they owned a house with a pool, where Lee coached students. He also coached divers for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Later, he’d mentor Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, and he served as an ambassador to the Olympics under three presidents.

Here’s is a link to the USC Obituary that describes Dr. Sammy Lee’s life in more detail.

What are your thoughts of how hard Sammy Lee had to work, the prejudice he faced from striving to be an Olympic Diver and not being able to use the pool?

As an adult he was blocked from buying a home in Orange County despite being serving our country, being an Olympic Gold Medalist and a doctor.

35 thoughts on “How times have changed: the story of Dr. Sammy Lee

  1. What a beautiful piece, Elizabeth. I think it’s important to continue to share these horrific tales of prejudice so we never, ever forget. Shameful in every way and sadly, still oh-so relevant — highlighting the need to ring the warning bell, still, many years later.

  2. As Vicki notes, lessons our world has still not learned and so many changes that still need to come. As you have EA, it remains so important to tell these stories. Thank you.

      • Yes, true. That’s another way that I think many will use discriminatory actions to marginalize- trying now to site that these things were long ago, historic social systems that clearly held prejudice…way in the past… as a way to highlight how society has changed…when it really hasn’t

  3. What an interesting profile of a great swimmer and resilient man! Thanks for sharing this and highlighting where we’ve had terrible policies (draining the pool after International Day??) as a good reminder that we need to continually check our assumptions and accepted practices.

  4. I’m appalled, but not surprised at the discrimination he endured and rose above to become so successful. It’s good to be reminded of these community-wide types of bigotry. Now it seems more individual, but that can always change.

  5. What a story of perseverance, and it all took place in cities from my youth. Irrelevant but interesting. There was a time when I thought things were getting better, but now I feel like we’ve back-pedaled. It’s unfair to say the least about what Dr. Sammy Lee endured and what anyone endures because of prejudice. I want to stay hopeful, but I just don’t know if things will improve. Thanks for sharing.

    • It unbelievable to me that he couldn’t buy a house in Orange County and they would empty the pool after “International Day” so that white children would swim in “clean” water.

      • Wow. You were right by the Sammy Lee Swim School, but it was probably no longer existence when you were there. It began when Disneyland opened. The pool story really bothers me.

      • Yeah, I wasn’t even born when Disneyland opened. 🙂 But Disneyland was ‘in my backyard’ so I have many great memories. It’s changed so much though, so I’m not sure when I’ll go again. The last time was in 2012 and it was packed and expensive. Anyway, the whole notion of one race acting superior over another (or others) and treating them as though they are nothing is just unethical. It’s the way it was and it’s the way it is even in today’s world, but simply put, we’re all equal. It bothers me too.

      • I do think things have gotten better since those days. We’re not healed yet, but headed in the right direction. I haven’t been to Disneyland since my kids were little. We’d go once every summer while on vacation in Laguna.

  6. It’s hard to imagine how it would feel to go through life being subjected to such outright prejudice and discrimination. What gives you the stamina to persevere under those kind of circumstances? And he was such a generous and giving person, open to helping others succeed, and prosper in aquatic sports. Amazing. Thanks for sharing his story. Hugs, C

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