On Aug. 1, Olympic diver Dr. Sammy Lee turned 88, making him the oldest living Olympic gold medalist.
But that isn’t the only “first” or “only” distinction in the Highland Park native’s storied athletic career. In the 1948 Games in London, Lee, a Korean-American, became the first Asian-American to win a medal for the United States, bringing home the gold in the men’s platform competition and a bronze medal in the three-meter springboard event.
Four years later in Helsinki — at the height of the Korean War — Lee did it again, winning his second gold medal for the U.S. in the men’s platform competition. At the ripe old age of 32 — having already completed undergrad studies at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, then in 1947 acquiring his medical degree from USC (which only cost $750 a year at the time) — Lee became not only the oldest person to win a gold medal in diving, but also the first male to win back-to-back gold medals in the sport. (We’re not sure, but has a medical doctor ever won Olympic diving gold?)
A lifelong swimmer who still regularly logs miles of laps per week, Lee is now retired from his practice as an ear, nose and throat specialist and has lived in Huntington Harbor since 1978. However, he still remains active with the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center, where he continues a decades-long tradition of mentoring young Olympic hopefuls — from gold medalist Bob Webster (in 1960 and 1964) and 1976 silver medalist Greg Louganis to this year’s batch of world-class divers leaving this week to compete in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
Still able to maintain such a rigorous physical schedule at 88, Lee — along with dozens of other extremely fit men and women ranging from their 50s to well into their 90s — has competed in a variety of competitions at the Senior Olympics, held each June and sponsored by the Pasadena Senior Center.
In his 70s, Lee competed in golf and tennis in the Pasadena Senior Olympics, but stopped due to back trouble.
“We’re a bunch of has-beens,” Lee quipped. “We’re the over-the-hill gang, but that’s better than being under.”
For Lee, the very thing that drove his competitive Olympic ambitions is pretty much the same thing that keeps him going now: He still dreams of winning.
“Don’t let anybody ever take away your dream,” said Lee. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have a goal.”
While professional athletes usually end their careers in their 30s, many local seniors are still competing in various sports and proving the athletic spirit never gets old.
Back in June, as the eyes of the world were turning toward Beijing, the Pasadena Senior Olympics was gearing up to showcase skills of seniors, with swimming, running, walking, weight lifting, bowling, cycling and climbing, among other activities.
Cynthia Rosedale, Pasadena Senior Center interim executive director and director of events for the Senior Olympics, recalled a legally blind swimmer and a breast cancer survivor among the inspirational individuals she sees each year.
“My favorite part is going to the events,” says Rosedale. “You see a year’s worth of work culminate.”
Senior Olympics competitor Sarah Sneider and her husband Harry, a power lifter, could easily be called the king and queen of the Senior Olympics. The couple hosts power-lifting competitions in their home and have been training people for decades.
Their home is literally a shrine to fitness, complete with exercise machines, weights and photos and articles about the two and some of the trainees. Harry trained Olympic high jumper Dwight Stones and even helped chess prodigy Bobby Fischer improve his physical endurance and strength to match his mental skills.
Sarah first entered the Senior Olympics at 50 and still does rope climbing, chin-ups, long jump and power lifting. Still thin and fit at 64, Sarah has won 27 Senior Olympics medals, including four gold medals this year.
“I did power lifting because we’ve been training and since it was held in our facility I thought I should participate and set an example,” said Sarah. “I always thought rope climbing would be a challenge. The goal at first was to make it all the way up and I did. … What I am probably most proud of is that I can still climb a rope.”
Three people in their 80s participated in power lifting at last month’s event, youngsters compared to 95-year-old George Feinstein of Pasadena, who has been an avid jogger as well for the past 60 years.
“I joke that instead of a watch I carry a calendar,” says Feinstein, who started competing in the Senior Olympics four years ago. “I jog every morning, but it’s become more like a brisk walk. I say I’m a half-fast runner.”
Feinstein plans to attend the Palo Alto Nationals next year, but says “at our age, you can’t predict what we’re going to do next week.” But as of last month, Feinstein has taken the gold in the 50-meter and 400-meter runs and the silver in the 100-meter and 200-meter runs in his current 90 to 94 age group.
“What surprises me is I have published several college textbooks, one is in its seventh edition, and I got virtually no attention for writing those, and then for the fun of it I do a little running, and maybe because of my age I get attention,” he said. “Our priorities are very distorted. Attention should be given, but there are many more important things.”
Though he can no longer participate in the LA Marathon, which he ran eight times in his 80s before stopping at age 88, Feinstein’s focus is staying active.
“If you stop moving you’re dead,” says Feinstein. “You need to start moving and keep moving. It’s not how fast you do it, but that you do it. I don’t let a day go by where I don’t run.”
“It’s not a competition where you are really trying to beat the other people,” says Sneider. “It’s more encouraging, like a family-type camaraderie. Younger people can tend to be more competitive but older people are more grateful to be healthy. We’re not elite athletes. We’re regular people trying to stay fit and active so we can hopefully be healthy for years to come.”
Since the early 1990s, 73-year-old race walker Shirley Capps has competed in the Pasadena Senior Olympics and other national and international senior championships.
Despite a hip replacement five years ago, Capps won a gold medal at this year’s Pasadena Senior Olympics road walk, and in the 15 kilometer race at a competition in Riverside last year. She also went to Italy last year to enter the International Senior Games.
“Those are really interesting because [the competitors] have different techniques,” says Capps. “They develop slightly different styles in their own countries.”
“When you look at the camaraderie of the Senior Olympics and the friendships that are made, Shirley really exemplifies that,” says Rosedale. “She’s part of this walking group and they are such a support to each other.”
Capps says she doesn’t feel like she has aged rapidly, something she attributes to race walking.
“It’s not like running,” says Capps. “It’s not hard on your body. It’s lost its popularity largely because people want to do marathons and maybe because they are not judged when they do those. I wish we had more people because it’s an exciting way of staying in shape and making friends.”
Another senior who just won’t quit is 76-year-old track and field competitor Don Leis, who has won 150 medals over six years in six different events.
Leis, who attended John Muir High School in Pasadena as a teen, competes in eight track meets a year through the USA Masters Association, but says his heart is more in the Pasadena and California competitions.
“Don’t be afraid or intimidated,” says Leis. “Getting involved is the first step — and you meet the nicest people.”
After a torn meniscus and two hernia operations Leis is certainly not afraid to continue with his humility still intact.
“Certain people are really good athletes that don’t have the money to go to the state championships,” says Leis. “I like competition and you may win a medal but there are usually about 34 people at the national event and maybe about 15 that didn’t get there because of resources. You can’t really boast because there are a lot of people who would do it if they had the money.”
The highlights of Leis’ track and field career have been his torch runs at Pasadena City Hall for the past two Senior Olympics, and, he says, “the satisfaction of taking care of myself.”
Another former educator, Glenn Gruber, taught physical education and, at 59, continues keeping fit through swimming. Gruber swam competitively in high school and college and then took an eight- to nine-year break before participating in the masters competitions at Caltech — and hasn’t stopped since 1979.
While he swims at Caltech and participates in the Senior Olympics, Gruber says the levels of competition are different.
“There is more competition in masters because there are more people involved,” says Gruber. “Not to say that there aren’t tough races in the Senior Olympics because there certainly are.”
In the 2007 United States Masters Swimming competition in Washington DC, Gruber was the 100-yard freestyle national champion. At the National Senior Games he came in second in the 50-meter, 100-meter and 500-meter.
Among Gruber’s inspirations is Dara Torres, who this year will be the first U.S. swimmer to compete in five Olympic Games.
But just as inspiring have been some of the people Gruber met on the senior circuit.
“I was in a qualifying meet in San Diego for the Senior Games and a man was swimming who was probably in his 90s, and his daughter was waiting for him at the end of the pool and had a walker for him, so he got out of the pool and shuffled away,” Gruber recalls. “That was inspiring.”
Finding that goal Lee and his wife, Roz — who together invented the Sammy Cool ‘N Dry Sport Shammy synthetic towel used by swimmers and divers to dry off and by other athletes to stay cool in hot weather — will be celebrating this year’s Olympics by attending the diving competition and the event’s closing ceremonies.
Lee broke down barriers in the diving world as the first Korean-American to win an Olympic gold medal, in 1948 and 1952. But it was in 1952 that political tensions somewhat eclipsed the euphoria of the quadrennial sports celebration.
“I asked a military official if it was morally right to go to the Olympics and he said, ‘We have plenty of doctors who can heal people but only one doctor who can win in the Olympics,’” recalls Lee, who also remembered the prejudice of that time and how he and other people of color could only use the public pool one day a week when he was younger.
But not even blatant discrimination could deter him from his goal — even if he didn’t really know what that goal was. He remembered being with his dad and seeing Olympic flags flying at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, ushering in the 1932 Olympics. He told his dad he was going to be a champion some day.
“My father said, ‘What in?’ and I said, ‘I’ll find it,’” he said.
Although Lee no longer participates in the Pasadena Senior Olympics, he thinks “it’s a great thing.” That’s because “exercise is the key to longevity,” he said.
For more information on the Pasadena Senior Olympics, visit: www.pasadenaseniorcenter.org/SeniorOlympics/SOHomepage.htm.