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NATURAL LEE : Hero’s Welcome Is No Surprise to Former U.S. Diving Standout

Times Staff Writer

Everywhere Dr. Sammy Lee goes here during these Olympic Games he is greeted as a hero.

A U.S. Olympic diving star, winner of two gold medals, Lee came here as a member of the entourage representing President Reagan. A man of Korean ancestry, whose family has long been close to the leading families of Korea, and a former Korean diving coach, Lee is staying here as a guest of the Korean government.

And a longtime friend and one-time coach of Greg Louganis, Lee is welcome on the deck with the diving coaches.

Thursday night, while sitting in the VIP section at the Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool, Lee waved an arm around the expansive natatorium and said, “I never expected when I landed here in 1953 with the United States Army that we would ever see something like this.

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“All of this area was land mines. The city was devastated.”

Lee, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist now practicing in Santa Ana, was a doctor in the U.S. Army Medical Corps then. Asked if he had been a major, Lee quipped: “A major nuisance!”

But yes, he said, he was a major in the Army when he first came to the land of his ancestors and sought out his uncle, his mother’s brother, who was living in a poor hovel with a dirt floor.

When he made known to the man that they were related, his uncle began to cry and he started digging up the floor. He dug down about a foot and unearthed a carefully wrapped box in which he had a picture of Lee in his U.S. Army uniform.

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He showed Lee the picture, which he said was a source of great pride. But he had buried it so that the North Koreans would not find it and, seeing a Korean in a U.S. uniform, mark him for execution.

But once Lee was there in person, he was bound to be high profile.

One of the first things Lee was called upon to do in Korea was go to the Korean White House to treat then-President Syngman Rhee, who had an ear infection.

Rhee asked him if he knew the American Lee who was a diver, or if maybe that Lee was his brother. And Lee told him, “I am the champion.”

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Lee had won the Olympic gold medal for the U.S. on the platform in both 1948 and 1952.

Rhee said that he had been trying to reach him for years to ask him to dive for Korea in the Olympic Games.

Lee said he replied: “I was born an American. I think like an American. Only my face is Korean.”

And yet Lee feels strong ties to Korea. He has been here many times over the years to help with the Korean diving team.

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Lee also has stayed close to the Rhee family. On Saturday, a holiday similar to the American Thanksgiving Day, Lee is going with Madame Rhee to visit the grave of the former president, who died in 1965.

Film maker Bud Greenspan is going to save the moment in a documentary.

Indeed, every move Lee makes is noted.

Lee was on the deck watching the diving preliminaries the night that Louganis hit his head on the springboard. Lee said he could see that Louganis was going to hit the board.

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“Any other diver would have been seriously hurt,” Lee said. “Anyone else would have still been coming around, still whipping around to complete the dive, but Greg had actually completed the dive and was starting to reach for the water, so he was back more.”

Lee also was there when Louganis told Dr. James Puffer not to bother with Novocain, just to sew him up as quickly as possible so that he could continue to dive.

“Greg just kept saying how ticked off he was that he had made such a stupid mistake,” Lee said. “He wanted to get back to the competition. Greg is such a wonderful competitor.

“I taught him to play tennis in one afternoon a few years ago, so that he and I could play in a celebrity match at La Costa. When the others heard that he had never played before, no one wanted him as a partner. But when they saw his play at the net, they all wanted him.

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“Now when I play with him, I have to tell him to take it easy. He runs for every shot, and I’m afraid he’s going to get hurt. But that’s just the kind of competitor he is.

“I am encouraging him to continue to compete until the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona. When I made my final dive to win the gold on Aug. 1, 1952--it was a forward 3 1/2 somersault in tuck position--it was my 32nd birthday. I said to myself, ‘Happy birthday, you old SOB, you did it again.’

“Greg is 28 now. He’ll be 32 for the Games in Barcelona. I tell him, ‘If I could do it then, you can do it now.’ I was good in my day, but compared to Greg, I was just a prop plane and he’s a jet.

“I’m not the only one telling him he should try to compete at the next Olympic Games, but I’m one who tells him every day.”

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