Diver Sammy Lee, the first Asian-American man to win a gold medal in the Olympics, died from pneumonia at the age of 96 on Friday.
Lee, who was also a medical doctor, rose to fame after earning a gold medal in 10-meter platform diving event and a bronze medal in the springboard diving event at the 1948 Olympics in London, The New York Times noted. This was followed by another gold at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
Aside from his Olympic feats, Lee also bagged three national diving championships as a collegian. He was declared by the Amateur Athletic Union as America’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1953. By 1990, his name was included in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
Lee was born on August 1, 1920 to Korean immigrants in Fresno, California. He was the youngest in the family. Growing up, he was no stranger to racial abuse, both at school and their own neighborhood.
Discrimination persisted even after Lee’s Olympic achievements. Hoping to buy a home in Garden Grove, he was turned down by real estate agents, with one blatantly saying, “I’m sorry, Doctor, but I have to eat, and I’d lose my job for selling to a nonwhite.”
He was able to secure housing when government officials learned of his situation.
In an earlier interview with The Orange County Register, Lee said prejudice made him more determined to succeed in the American lifestyle. He told the outlet:
“I wanted to represent the finest qualities of my ancestral background and show that they can be accepted as 100 percent American. I tell the kids today that if you got the fighting instinct in you, you can overcome prejudice. You show people with your performance, not just words.”
Lee, an ear, nose and throat specialist, retired from practicing medicine in 1990.
He is survived by his wife Rosalind M. K. Wong, children Pamela Lee and Sammy Lee II and three grandchildren, USC News wrote.