INTO THE NEXT STAGE — Olympians: Decades in the Making for a Lifetime of Glory

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Last week I had the opportunity to get published at the newspaper I work for a profile I wrote about Olympic diver Sammy Lee.

At Investor’s Business Daily, where I’m the assistant news editor, we have a daily section titled Leaders & Success, in which an individual who is a giant in his or her field (business, academia, science and technology, athletics, etc.), and who overcame great obstacles to achieve greatness, is profiled.

When the Olympics were still a couple of months out, I pitched to the L&S editor the idea of writing about Fresno-born, L.A.-raised Lee, who won gold and bronze at the 1948 London Olympics in the 10-meter platform and 3-meter springboard diving events. Four years later, Lee won gold again in the 10-meter platform dive, in Helsinki, Finland.

Once I got the green light, I proceeded to interview Dr. Lee (yes, he was a real physician, too) at his home in Huntington Beach. Incidentally, he turned 92 yesterday and plans on returning to London for the Games, 64 years after his triumph.

One of the most-compelling aspects of this Korean American’s path to the Olympics is how he surmounted the difficulties he encountered while trying to train.

As readers of a certain age can attest, going to a public pool in Southern California in the 1930s, when Lee was in training, was limited to an “international day” one day a week, when blacks, Latinos and Asians could swim.

All other days were reserved for whites, who were told that the water in the pool had been drained overnight and replenished with fresh, “clean” water.

Sammy, therefore, had to practice his somersaults by diving into a sand pit he helped dig in his coach’s backyard. The physical toll all these years later, he said, resulted in a bad back.

Regarding the pool, told me an anecdote that didn’t make it into the profile. Some 40 years after his Olympic appearances, he ran into a pool attendant who used to chase him out if he attempted to sneak in for some diving practice. The man asked, “Sammy, do you remember me?”

I’m paraphrasing here, but Sammy said he answered, “Of course I do. You’re the SOB who used to chase me out of the pool! And then you’d drain the water afterward.”

The man then said to Sammy: “Let me tell you a little secret. That pool was 150 feet long and 12 feet deep at the deepest point. Do you really think we could drain it and refill it overnight? We’d just drain off about two feet of water and wait for the bigots to go home. Then we’d refill it.”

Funny stuff. But another story he told affected me in a different way. He must have been around 11 when Los Angeles hosted the 1932 Olympics. Young Sammy was intrigued by all the flags of the world on display in the city one morning when he and his father went to the downtown produce mart to get supplies for the grocery store his family owned in Highland Park.

When Sammy asked his dad why all the flags were on display and what the Olympics were and got the answer that the Olympics are where the world’s greatest athletes are crowned, the boy decided that he himself wanted to become an Olympic champion. This, despite not knowing in which sport. He liked boxing and football, but his stature (five feet two inches when he was fully grown) didn’t augur much in terms of eventual success.

Then he discovered diving at a local pool one international day and was smitten. When he declared to his father that this was what he wanted to pursue, Soonkee Lee told his son he’d back him all the way — but only if he promised to also become a physician. Thus was Sammy Lee’s life direction set.

At present I have a daughter and a son, a bit younger than Sammy Lee was when he became aware of the Olympics. Unlike in Sammy’s era, most kids have for a couple of generations now become aware of and interested in the Olympics via TV. (Even though the Beijing Games were just four years ago, Akari, 8, and Jameson, 6, don’t remember much about those Olympics.)

Now that my youngsters have become involved in organized sports, the Olympics now have some relevance to them. For J.J., the past weekend was one in which he won a second-place trophy at his judo dojo’s monthly in-house tournament. Then, he won another trophy after participating in the 2012 Jets/Jetts Invitational Basketball Tournament. If that’s not a great weekend in a kid’s life, I don’t know what is!

They both now say they want to be in the Olympics. J.J. thinks he could do it in judo. Akari doesn’t yet know which sport.

I want to encourage them. But I also must be realistic. They seem to have some aptitude and athletic ability, but nothing extraordinary. Then again, at their age, anything seems possible.

From what I’ve observed, most who are now Olympians in London began pursuing their chosen sport at around the age my children are now. But does anyone — parents included — with a vague dream of “being in the Olympics” have a clue of how much of a grind it can be to train four or five hours a day, six days a week, just to have a shot at being in the Olympics, much less earning a medal? I doubt it.

Yes, it is a goal that is possible. But those are some heavy dues for a youngster to pay.

And yet I think about Sammy Lee. He wanted it badly enough to practice by diving into a sand pit for who knows how long. That is dedication that most people simply can’t or won’t undertake.

In the meantime, I’ll watch the Olympics with my kids. We’ll enjoy the thrills, be saddened by the spills and just revel in the drama and spectacle of it all. Sammy Lee and all the latter-day Olympians who put in the hard work to make it to London can continue to inspire us all.

Inspiration Dept.: Speaking of pursuing one’s dreams, singer-actress Gina Hiraizumi held a party Saturday night to mark the debut of her new music video for the song “Never Say Never.”

I’ve written about her here in recent years regarding her pursuit of a career in showbiz. She’s still at it and has something new to add to her credits.

A scheduling conflict meant I couldn’t be there to see it debut with her many fans, but I later got the YouTube.com link from her. So, now, you can see it, too. The song’s message — never quit and never give in — is appropriate to the main part of today’s column. Give it a look and a listen at http://tinyurl.com/bm8oums and maybe you’ll get some much-needed inspiration for whatever goal you are pursuing.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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