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SoCal Olympic diver Sammy Lee had to be trained in a sand pit because minorities were not allowed in public pools. Despite the cultural tensions at the time, Lee became the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal in 1948. Gordon Tokumatsu reports from the NBC4 Olympic Village at LA Live for the NBC4 News at 4 p.m. on August 1, 2012.
California native and Olympic diver Sammy Lee had to train in a sand pit because Asian Americans – and other minority groups – could not use the public pool some six decades ago.
But that didn’t stop him from winning the gold in the 1948 London Olympics.
"In my day, they said you had to be white to win the gold, because the white man has a ‘better looking body,'" said Lee, who turned 92 Wednesday.
Photos from Lee’s legendary career as the first Asian-American to win Olympic gold cast him in stark contrast to his much larger teammates.
Lee -- a retired doctor who lives in Southern California -- says at his peak, he was 5-feet-2-inches tall. Now, he stands less than 5 feet tall.
Lee says he fooled them all because he was "short and squatty."
To more completely appreciate his accomplishments, one must consider the historical context of his achievements.
In 1948, the world was still reeling from World War II. After Pearl Harbor, Asians in general were still not fully accepted in many parts of the country.
Lee, a Korean-American, recalls his Fresno childhood, when Asians and African-Americans could only go to the public pool one day a week, forcing his coach to make due with a sand pit into which Lee dove.
Although an accomplished athlete, Lee still jokes about his physical abilities.
"I’m a lousy swimmer. I couldn’t even pass the junior life-saving test," he said.
Against such odds, Lee somersaulted his way to the 1948 London Olympics where he earned two gold medals off the platform. At the time, we he was a student at USC's medical school.
Four years later in Helsinki, he would earn a bronze medal.
Lee says he was inspired by the British people who had just endured a devastating war.
"Forty percent of the buildings were destroyed …and the food was rationed," he said.
Now, more than half a century later, Lee returns to London, feisty as ever.
And what he lacks in still lacks in height, he more than makes up for with his gigantic Olympic spirit.