Paul Jeffers: Reflecting on his Sammy Lee Swim School years

US Olympic Gold Medalist Sammy Lee

Dr. Sammy Lee on a diving tower.

Paul Jeffers grew up in Orange County in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. During much of that time, his home club was the Sammy Lee Swim School. According to Jeffers, “I was extremely fortunate to have joined the Sammy Lee Swim School, which gave young swimmers and divers a chance to compete on a local, regional and national level.”

One of Jeffers teammates at the Sammy Lee Swim School and at University of Southern California was Bill Brown. Brown majored in Cinema at USC and is working on a documentary about Dr. Sammy Lee. “I am assisting in the collection of stories, photos and related memorabilia from that period of time,” Jeffers said.

Here’s an excerpt from SwimSwam, Dec. 3, 2016  when Dr. Sammy Lee passed away at age 96:

Lee was the 1948 and 1952 Olympic gold medalist on the 10 meter platform event, making him the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic platform diving. He was also the first Asian-American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States.

Lee, of Korean descent, rose to fame in the United States in a difficult time for Asian-Americans. He won his first gold medal in the first Olympic Games after the end of World War II, during which the United States interred many citizens of Asian descent.

Korea was controlled by the United States until the end of World War II, Two years after his first gold medal, on June 25th, 1950, civil war broke out in Korea between the communist-support north and the American-supported south, further raising tensions. The war didn’t end until after Lee earned his second Olympic gold medal.

Permission from SwimSwam.com

 

Sammy Lee with other divers

Sammy Lee with other divers.

Jeffers moved to Anaheim in 1955 with his family when Disneyland opened.  “Upon my arrival, I joined the Hawaiian Village Recreation Club. They were just starting a swim team,” Jeffers said. This club team wasn’t affiliated with AAU but had seven swim teams in their league including the Blue Buoys Swim School and Sea Horse in Garden Grove. Jeffers described it as a wonderful league for club swimming. In 1961, Jeffers migrated to Sammy Lee Swim School which was located at 2511 Lincoln Blvd. in Anaheim. Rick Rowland was his swim coach and was also the Garden Grove High School coach. Rowland brought over his high school swimmers to the Sammy Lee Swim School.  In the next two years, Rowland left and was replaced by Lee Arth. Arth also coached Fullerton High School swimmers and he brought them to the team as well. The diving program was entirely Dr. Sammy Lee’s domain, according to Jeffers.

“The swim school had a great reputation and was a hotbed of great swimmers, the most notable was Gary Hall. We were winning championships at Junior Olympics for example. That’s when the Sammy Lee Swim School became a dominant part of my teenage life. I was going to meets every weekend. We had dual meets and we had AAU sanctioned meets that we trained for. Those were all over Orange County and Los Angeles,” Jeffers said.

Sammy Lee coaches diver Paula Jean Myers

In this July 28, 1960, file photo, Paula Jean Myers Pope, right, who hopes to qualify for the 1960 U.S. Olympic Women’s Diving Team, goes through a workout on a trampoline under the watchful eye of her coach, Olympic star Sammy Lee in Anaheim, Calif. Lee, a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning diver who later mentored four-time Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis. Lee died Friday, Dec. 2, 2016 of pneumonia in Newport Beach, Calif., the University of Southern California said Saturday, Dec. 3. He was 96. (AP Photo/David F. Smith)

 “I arrived at age 13, so Gary Hall was in the 7-8 age group. Every time he moved up an age group, he’d dominate his group. He was the Don Schollander of younger age group swimming. Gary’s mother was a fantastic fan, she was in the stands at every meet and practice. She was the classic swim mom. His father was a doctor. The pool was beginning to fill up with some good swimmers, with Gary being the most famous.”  

In 1964 , Jeffers qualified for Olympic Trials with several teammates including Dennis West, Andy Strenk and the coach’s daughter Sydney. According to Jeffers, “We were represented in good force at the Olympic Trials where we had many Olympians attending from our area.”

Jeffers remembered the excitement of his trip to Olympic Trials with the Sammy Lee Swim School. “It was my first trip to New York. One of the swimmers on the team was originally from New York and her dad was a vice president with Squibb (now Bristol Myers Squibb). We stayed in a luxury setting in Larchmont. They took us to see all the sights. That was during the 1964/1965 World’s Fair. That was a fantastic trip for an 18 year old to see NewYork.”

Jeffers said that Sammy Lee was on the upper level of competitive teams. “I was a breaststroker. I wasn’t a speed demon, but I had endurance so 200s were my forte. I got into the finals at Olympic Trials and I got 7th. I was a few spots short of qualifying for the 1964 team. I look back on it and I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I do,” he said.

“One of my teammates, Gary Hall, Sr., went on to compete on the grandest stage of all to become the flag bearer at the 1972 Olympic Games in Montreal. His son, Gary Hall, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps to become a Gold Medal winner 20 years later at the Olympic Games. There were six other SLSS swimmers that went on to capture medals at the Olympic Games, including Steve Furniss in 1972, his brother Bruce Furniss in 1976, Dana Schrader in 1968, Andy Strenk in 1968, Rod Strachan in 1976 and Bill Johnson in 1968.”

Gary Hall flag bearer

Gary Hall, Sr. as flag bearer at the 1972 Olympic Games in Montreal.

Dr. Sammy Lee coached two Olympic Divers, Bob Webster and Paula Jean Myers-Pope.  They trained in the diving end of the pool while Jeffers swam.  They  went on to win gold medals in Olympic competition. Webster duplicated Lee’s two consecutive gold medals on the Tower in 1960 in Rome and 1964 in Tokyo. Dr. Sammy Lee also coached Greg Louganis who has been called “the greatest American diver,” having won back-to-back gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics. 

Peter Daland with swimmer Paul Jeffers

Paul Jeffers with Peter Daland.

Jeffers swim career continued after graduating from Anaheim and Savanna High Schools. “I enrolled at the University of Southern California and swam on a three-time NCAA national championship team under Peter Daland. Southern California was truly the hotbed for the sport of swimming at that time and attracted swimmers from all over the world to compete with the many clubs and colleges that had advanced swim programs to offer,” he said.

“When I went to USC and swam with Peter Daland, he already had established a championship team the year before I got there. I got to enjoy National Championships for the next three years. One of my teammates from USC did make the Olympic team in ’64, Wayne Anderson.”

Jeffers at USC wall of champions

Paul Jeffers at USA Wall of Champions

According to Jeffers, his best swimming success was in his sophomore year when he placed second at NCAAs in Ames, Iowa. “At that time there were only six finalists and four of them were from USC. Jeffers said breaststroke teammates included Kim Doesburg, from Newport High,  who made the ’68 Olympic team, and Bill Craig who won the 100 breast. Craig qualified for the ’68 Olympic medley relay team and came home with a gold medal. 

“Swimming on a top flight team, you’re looking across the pool at Olympians and gold medal winners. It was exhilarating to share a pool with some of the world’s greatest swimmers. I got to see from the ground up, from club swimming to AAU age grouper, to collegiate swimmer. That experience was my life.”

blue sweats on green grass

Gary Hall’s Sammy Lee Swim School sweats.

Jeffers parents weren’t involved with swimming except for one glaring exception — the year Jeffers qualified for Olympic Trials at age 18. “That was the Olympic year 1964. My dad had been detached from swimming, but the excitement of Olympic competition got to him and he went and bought a stopwatch. He’d be on the deck of the Buena Park 50-meter pool at 6 a.m. with his stopwatch. That’s when I knew this was really serious,” he said.

“I was surrounded by the best swimmers and divers in the world from right here at home in Orange County. My roots in the sport are deep and long lasting. I am now living in Laguna Woods and thoroughly enjoy swimming for fun and exercise,” Jeffers said. 

Swimmers from the Sammy Lee Swim School at the podium.

Dr. Sammy Lee, Olympic Gold Medalist and Doctor:

Dr. Lee overcame years of racial prejudice with a positive attitude and hard work. As a young diver aspiring to be an Olympian, he was only allowed to practice diving Wednesdays at the Pasadena’s Brookside Park segregated public pool on “International Day.” The pool was drained after International Day and white children swam the other six days a week. His coach at the time, dug a hole and filled it with sand so Sammy Lee could practice the rest of the week. He believed diving into sand made his legs stronger and was helpful to his Olympic aspirations.

He attended Occidental College where he was able to dive each day in a pool with teammates and pursue his Olympic dreams. His parents, who sacrificed to come to America and start a small business, pressured Sammy to become a doctor. He was able to do both.

Although Dr. Sammy Lee served in the Army during the Korean War, was an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist — and an Olympic Gold Medalist — he encountered more prejudice. He was blocked from buying a home in Orange County. 

Here’s an excerpt from an NPR article, Sammy Lee: Climbed Above Racism, Dove Into Olympic History by Karen Grigsby Bates:

As a civilian, Lee discovered that his status as a veteran didn’t shield him from prejudice. He and his wife Rosalind were turned away when they wanted to buy a home in one part of Orange County. Eventually, they bought a home nearby from a sympathetic developer. Eventually they owned a house with a pool, where Lee coached students. He also coached divers for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Later, he’d mentor Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, and he served as an ambassador to the Olympics under three presidents.

Here’s is a link to the USC Obituary that describes Dr. Sammy Lee’s life in more detail.

Jon Urbanchek got his start as a swim coach in Southern California at the Sammy Lee Swim School. Read his story here.

Here are memorabilia from Jeffers Sammy Lee Swim School Days:

swim patches

AAU Age Group patches.

Sammy Lee letter

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