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.”

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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

Bonnie Adair, So Cal Swimmer and Coach, Held 35 National Age Group Records

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SCAQ Masters at Loyola Marymount University

The Early Days

Bonnie Adair, head coach of Loyola Marymount University’s women’s swimming team, described her early days of swimming as just plain fun. Her family’s involvement began at the Beverly Hilton when her mom attended a show of little kids going off the diving boards. The coach was Nick Rodionoff, and her sister, Jerrie Sue, who was two and a half years older, joined the team. Bonnie was five years old and too young. She said that after a month of watching practice, Rodionoff allowed her in the water, too.

Bonnie’s swim career began in 1958 and she retired in 1972. During those years she accumulated 35 age group records and her 50m freestyle record she broke as an 8-year-old stood for 29 years.

She’s noticed many changes to the sport from the years when she swam with “the Puddle Jumpers” coached by Rodionoff, who is the head coach at Pepperdine. They didn’t have permanent water and her coach packed his 15 swimmers and divers into his camper and they swam at various pools. “He’d drive us one day to the LA Athletic Club, or we’d go to the Holiday Athletic Club. Eventually, one of the swim dad’s who was a developer got a pool built in the Encino, Van Nuys area. We became the San Fernando Valley Athletic Club,” she said.

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LMU Women’s Swimming Head Coach Bonnie Adair

Bonnie described her age group team as a “little homegrown team which became her parents’ social life. All my parents’ good friends were swim families. Everyone knew each other. My dad started as a timer and my mom worked at the desk where everything was done manually off little slips of paper before we had timing systems.” Her dad became meet manager and eventually became president of the Southern Pacific Association of the AAU, which was the predecessor to Southern California Swimming.

She remembered coaches association meetings in her living room in Woodland Hills. She said all the iconic coaches were there including Peter Daland, Don Gambril and Jim Montrella, who would have been around 19 years old. “I remember being afraid of Jim Montrella because he had this big booming voice, and then years later, I swam for him,” Bonnie said.

While she was on Radionoff’s team she said they’d surf if the surf was up, or go to Yosemite and ski. Swim meets were big family trips, and her entire team would caravan to Las Vegas or Phoenix. The parents were social and the kids ran in and out of everyone’s hotel rooms. “It was a social environment, a small intimate group of people. By the time I came along, Southern California was producing Olympians,” Bonnie said. “We were the top swim area of the country along with NorCal, Florida and a big team in Philadelphia.”

She said her practices were short and every lap was a race. She was a sprinter and it worked well for her. “I was a diver until 13,” Bonnie said. “Everyone was a diver and a swimmer, unlike today.”

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Bonnie and her sister in bottom right photo, Junior Swimmer and Swimming World, October 1962.

The Adair family moved to the Long Beach area and Bonnie joined Lakewood Aquatics where Jim Montrella was the head coach. She said after she started driving, her parents’ involvement was less. According to Bonnie, “The 1968 Olympic Trials men were in the Belmont Pool, which was new. The women swam in the Swim Stadium in the ghetto. My dad put on the women’s Olympic trials and that was his last big involvement.”

Back in those days, Bonnie said big meets were held at Santa Monica City College outside, or El Segundo Junior College in an indoor pool and the National level meets were held at the Swim Stadium, home of the 1932 Olympics. Orange County and the great pools there today, didn’t exist. She said Lakewood held the Junior Olympics in their pool every year. Eventually, all the big meets were moved to Belmont.

In the valley, she said there wasn’t land to build 50-meter pools and be able to train Olympic caliber athletes. So, in the Los Angeles area, small teams didn’t have the room to grow. The growth took place in Orange Country with the abundance of cheaper land and 50-meter pools.

She mentioned that Don Gambril’s Rosemead team merged with Daland’s group. They took over Belmont Pool and the team was called Phillips 66. Top swimmers included Gary Hall, Tim Shaw, and the Furniss boys. Mission Viejo came into being in the 1970s. Everyone flocked there. Mark Schubert, was a young guy who was hired. A couple of teams disbanded and swimmers like Shirley Babashoff went to Schubert.

Her freshman year of college was pre-Title IX, and there were limited opportunities and college programs for women. She was training with Montrella for the ’72 Olympic Trials and didn’t want to change up her training regime, so her freshman year she was a commuter at UC Irvine and lived at home with her parents. She said during those days she swam 11 practices a week and lifted weights. 

She said her sister, who was a diver, was able to compete on the Men’s team at UCLA with their former coach Rodionoff. “It was because she could score points as a diver, but as a swimmer, I couldn’t compete with the men and didn’t have that same opportunity.” She said looking back it was unfair that the women stayed at home and didn’t get to experience college life. “All of a sudden when school began, there would be all girls in our training group. The fast guys went off to swim at UCLA and USC. We were freshmen and sophomores in college, and we stayed with our club team to train. We lost that experience of being a freshman away at college.”

Title IX changed women’s swimming in college dramatically, with more programs and scholarships. “It’s sad for our guys and the Olympic sports. Without Title IX, we wouldn’t have women’s sports today, but it’s at a cost of the men’s programs.”

Another aspect that has changed are the swimsuits, she said. “Everything was Jantzen and they were heavy, sometimes wool and like a different species. Then Speedo came out with a triple stitched suit and it was so amazing. We only had a choice of black or navy back then.”

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Speedo ad from Junior Swimmer and Swimming World, October 1962

Bonnie attended UCLA her sophomore year and said she was burned out from swimming. Eventually, she found her way back on deck as an assistant coach, while earning her degree.

“I went to UCLA, I could work as a dry cleaner for $1.80 an hour, or I could teach a swim lesson for $20. Coaching is a niche where we have a skill that nobody else has. It paid more and was a whole more fun. It started out as a job, not a career choice. Once I became a lawyer, I realized I didn’t enjoy it as much as coaching. My close friends were the ones I met through masters swimming, not my lawyer peers.”

Bonnie said she “came out of retirement at 35, swam for five years broke a couple world and national records. I hung up my suit at 40. It’s too much to get up on the blocks and race. I like to swim for fitness.”

Along with coaching at LMU, she began a Masters team with Olympian Clay Evans, Santa Monica Masters Swim Team, which later became SCAQ – now the largest Masters program in the United States with over 900 active members.

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Bonnie Adair and Clay Evans, founders of SCAQ Masters.

From Bonnie Adair’s bio on the LMU website:

“During her own 13-year swimming career, Adair set 35 National Age Group records including a 50m freestyle record that stood for 29 years.

Competing in 12 National Championships (her first at age 13) and two Olympic Trials, Adair became a National finalist in the 100 free and 100 fly and a member of a 400-meter medley relay that established four American records.

She attended UCLA as an undergraduate and then Loyola Law School. During law school, Adair was the assistant coach of the UCLA women’s swim team and also coached the Team Santa Monica age group team.

In 1979, Adair created the Santa Monica Masters Swim Team, which later became SCAQ – now the largest Masters program in the United States with over 900 active members.

In her 30-plus years coaching, it is estimated that Adair has coached or instructed more than 20,000 Los Angeles-area swimmers.

Between 1985 and 1994, Adair came out of swimming retirement to compete in several Masters National Championships and World Games and set national and world records in the freestyle sprint events and 100 and 200 IMs. She has contributed swimming articles to SWIM Magazine and Fitness Swimmer Magazine and was honored as the United States Masters Coach of the Year in 1997.

From 1996-1999, Adair was the head coach of the men’s and women’s swimming teams at Santa Monica College, where she earned the Western State Conference Women’s Coach of the Year award in 1997. In 1998, her women’s team tied for the conference title and placed sixth in the state. Her men’s team also earned a sixth place finish.

Adair currently resides in West Los Angeles.”