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Sammy Lee: Olympic Legend and Hero

Aug. 09, 2010, 7:13 p.m. (ET)

LOS ANGELES -- The Olympic Games create legends. It's why the spirit of the Games is such a real and powerful thing. Among us walk men and women who have done extraordinary things.

A select few of of these Olympic legends are something even more. They are, truly, heroes.

Dr. Sammy Lee is a hero, and the city of Los Angeles paid tribute to him Thursday in a ceremony that served as a vivid reminder of the pull of the Olympics, the city dedicating a square in his honor while the incredible story of his life and achievements were told anew, a story that -- no matter how many times it is related -- deserves to be told and told some more, and for two very good reasons:

Not that there could possibly be any doubt on the matter but Sammy Lee, who just turned 90 years old, deserves to know while he's still with us that he is one of the all-time greats. And children everywhere ought to know how a man like Sammy Lee has lived; he has embraced life to its fullest.

"Sammy Lee is a great American," Herb Wesson, who is a member of the Los Angeles city council, said, and that's not bluster. That's truth talking.

Sammy Lee is a two-time gold medalist in diving, in 1948 in London and in 1952 in Helsinki.

He is the first American of Asian descent to win an Olympic gold medal.  He is the first person of color to win a medal in diving. He is the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic platform diving.

Sammy Lee is an authentic American through and through -- he wore a red, white and blue blow tie to Thursday's ceremony -- who grew up Asian in California during years when being Asian in California held very different challenges than now.

When Sammy was growing up, non-whites could use the pool where he practiced one day a week, on Wednesdays only. And then, as he has told it, the pool would be emptied after the non-whites used it, and fresh water was brought in the next day.

When the pool was off-limits, Sammy practiced by jumping into a sand pile.

His break came when he was noticed by coach Jim Ryan, a bear of a man who stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 275 pounds. Ryan would take Sammy to the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Normally, the club was closed to minorities. But no one dared tell Jim Ryan that he couldn't bring Sammy Lee in with him.

Sammy had designs on the 1940 Olympics. But the war raging around the world meant no Games.

Maybe, Sammy thought, 1944. The war carried on. No Games.

Sammy went to college, at Occidental. He graduated in three years. He went on to USC and in 1947 not only earned his medical degree but became a major in the U.S. Army medical corps.

"Think about that life," Wesson said Thursday at the microphone. "That is enough right there, enough to make his family proud, enough to be deemed a great man. But it didn't stop there.

"Where he found the time to learn and practice diving beats the hell out of me. Somehow, he did."

In 1948, Sammy turned 28. Finally, he got his Olympic chance, and made the most of it. He won not only a platform gold but a springboard bronze.

In 1952, Sammy was 32. Again, he struck gold.

Wesson said, "He would be a hero to all of us if he would have stopped. But no. He continued to give. And he was a coach," mentoring, among others, Greg Louganis.

Among other achievements. Sammy went on to serve on the President's Council for Physical Fitness during five presidential administrations.

"If there was ever anyone who would make you believe there are no limits in life, it is Dr. Sammy Lee," Wesson said.

"When in the early 1980s most Southern Californians were predicting a failure for the 1984 Olympic Games, the rest of the world agreed with those conclusions. But," Peter Ueberroth, who oversaw those 1984 L.A. Games, wrote in a letter read aloud Thursday, "there were a few dissenting voices that assured Los Angeles that the 1984 Games would make us all proud.

"Dr. Sammy Lee and Rafer Jonson were out front providing the positive leadership which eventually engulfed our community. They showed all of Southern California that diversity, performance and community go hand in hand."

They held a big party last Saturday for Sammy on the occasion of his 90th, at a restaurant in Westminster, Calif., in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. About 300 of Sammy's closest friends showed up; there were 47 Olympic medals represented in the audience.

The Olympic athletes who showed up Thursday - as the city of L..A. dedicated a square in the cultural center of Koreatown in Sammy's name, at the corner  of South Normandie Avenue and West Olympic Boulevard - included the likes of Haley Ishimatsu, a 2008 U.S. team diver, and Marilyn White, who won silver in track and field in 1964 in Tokyo.

"If we don't tell the children what the Olympic Games mean, then they are going to take it very shallowly and not understand what it is we have entrusted to them," White said.

Peter Vidmar, the 1984 Games gold-medal winning gymnast who is now chairman of the USA Gymnastics board of directors, made the trek up to L.A. Thursday from Orange County, a two-hour ordeal in Southern California's notorious rush-hour traffic. Anything, he said, for Sammy Lee.

As Los Angeles natives know, Olympic Boulevard sits between 9th and 11th streets; it should thus be 10th. But the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles marked the tenth Olympiad of the modern era. Thus the street is named Olympic.

To great applause, they told that story again on Thursday, too, the plaque for Sammy unveiled just a few yards away from Olympic Boulevard itself.

True to form, Sammy didn't brag Thursday about the medals he has won or the great many other things he has done. He offered praise for his wife, Roz; his children; and his grandchildren. And he said thank you.

"This is a complete surprise," he said of seeing the plaque with his name on it. "How many 90-year-olds get recognized like this?"