Photo Courtesy: www.teamusa.org / Alan Abrahamson -
Sammy Lee flanked by Los Angeles city councilmen Tom LaBonge and Herb Wesson and surrounded by other dignitaries as the city names a square in honor of the two-time diving gold medalist.
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