Story #6 – A Pool Made for an Olympian

The California ranch house at 1222 Sharon Road was built in 1955 and owned by the famous Dr. Sammy Lee and his wife Rosalind. Dr. Sammy Lee was the first Asian American man to win an Olympic medal for the US team, but the story of building a home in Orange County as an Asian American was not an easy one.

Growing up in the 1930s, Southern California had enough of the “South” in it that young Sammy Lee could only watch through the iron fence most days when other boys his age swam at the pool in Pasadena’s Brookside Park. The pool, like the area’s beaches and many other public facilities, was segregated. But not on Wednesdays. Wednesdays were International Days. “Basically, anyone who wasn’t white could use the pool,” said Paula K. Yoo, one of Lee’s biographers. “Then they’d drain it afterward.” Lee would instead practice his dives in sand due to the restrictions.

Lee loved diving and when he went to Occidental College, he did a lot of studying and a lot of diving. “He’d spend a lot of time in labs, then walk 800 feet to the pool house, and practice dives to unwind,” Yoo said. Lee finished a medical degree at USC and was a good enough diver to make the Olympic team, but the Games were canceled twice because of World War II. He finally got his chance in 1948. He was a 28-year-old medical corpsman in the Army Reserves competing in the London Olympics. With his near-perfect scores, Lee won a gold and bronze metal and made history at the games.

Although Lee was serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1953 to 1955, he’d compete once more in the Helsinki Olympics during the Korean War. Major Lee won his second gold, making him the only Asian-American to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals. In 1953, while serving his tour of duty in Korea, he won the James Sullivan Award, awarded annually by the Amateur Athletic Union to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the U.S.

Dr. Sammy Lee poolside with Olympic  metals and young divers including Greg Louganis

Back home as a civilian, the now 34 yr. old Dr. Lee discovered that his status as a veteran didn’t shield him from prejudice. He and his wife Rosalind faced housing discrimination in 1954 when they wanted to buy a home in white-only Garden Grove. The story became a national scandal going all the way to the White House. Eventually, they bought a home from a sympathetic developer. Santa Ana is where Dr. Lee would set up his ear, nose and throat practice of 35 years. This is also the home that had the custom diving pool where Lee would inspire and mentor young divers. He coached the U.S. diving team for the 1960 Olympics including double gold medalist Bob Webster. Later, he’d coach the Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, who lived with the Lee family before winning his first metal at age 16 in the 1976 Olympics. Dr. Lee would serve as an ambassador to the Olympics under three presidents.

Diving pool being built at 1222 Sharon Road

The Lee’s lived in the house on Sharon Road until 1978.