Many athletes and celebrities who served in the military did so before moving on with their careers. However, one army doctor became an Olympian while serving, something more Olympians are doing even now.
Samuel “Sammy” Lee watched the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and become enamored with the games. He soon discovered that he could perfectly execute somersaults.
So began his journey to become an Olympian.
Refining His Skills
Lee lived in Highland Park in Los Angeles at a time were he could not freely use the Pasadena Park Plunge pool, except for International Day. He had to think outside the box in order to practice.
He attended Occidental College, but didn’t have a diving instructor. Revered dive coach Jim Ryan became his coach. They made a sandpit in Ryan’s backyard for Lee to practice.
Ryan was tough on Lee. Farid Simaika, 1928 silver medalist diver, was once coached by Ryan. He explained to Lee why Ryan was so tough with him.
“At the 1928 Olympics, I won the gold but 3 days later they said there was an error and replayed the medal ceremony. I gave the gold to Pete DesJardins.”Farid Simaika
Needless to say, Ryan was not happy with the results and vowed to come back with another non-white diver. This time he would win gold.
Heading Toward the Olympics
Lee won the U.S. National Diving Championships in 1942, in both the 3-meter and 10-meter events. His win was larger then himself. He was the first person of color to win a national diving championship.
He went again 4 years later, winning the 10-meter and placing third in the 3-meter. While he was training, he also was going to USC School of Medicine, where in 1947, he earned his M.D.
Looking for a way to pay for school, Lee joined the Army Reserves. Lee competed at London’s 1948 Olympics winning bronze for his 3-meter springboard and gold for the 10-meter.
Lee was an Army major in 1952. He was supposed to leave for Korea, but was given permission to compete in the Helsinki Olympics, on one condition. He was told he “better win.”
He brought home the gold in the 10-meter platform dive. Right after the games, Lee went to Korea serving as a doctor for two years. After coming home, he had a practice as and ENT in Southern California until he retired in 1990.