Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

A Korean-American Olympian from Indian Springs

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

In the next few weeks I’ll be covering some of the great memories of Indian Springs that I’ve collected over the past few years from locals who spent time at that beautiful oasis. If you have some memories you’d like me to include, please send them to my email at Indian Springs was a great place to have fun, but it also had a serious side in that several Olympic divers trained there. Indian Springs seems also to have had an inclusive, tolerant attitude toward those athletes who weren’t, well, white. Vicki Manalo Draves, a Filipino-American diver who faced prejudice in her career, came to Indian Springs specifically to get away from the “whites only” rules of many training pools of the 1940s. Sammy Lee, another athlete who trained at Indian Springs, should be of particular interest as he was, like many new residents to our valley, Korean-American.

Sammy Lee was born in Fresno to Korean immigrants. They moved to L.A., Highland Park specifically, in the early 1930s, and young Sammy was impressed by the spectacle of the ’32 Olympics. When swimming at the few pools that allowed non-whites, he discovered a talent for diving. He trained under the great diving coach Jim Ryan. At the same time Sammy was competing and winning up through the ranks of national diving championships, he was also attending college – Occidental for his undergrad, and USC for his M.D., awarded in 1947. He had befriended Vicki Manalo while competing in San Francisco, and remained friends with both her and her new husband and coach Lyle Draves when they made the move to Indian Springs. Lee and Vicki Draves went to the 1948 Olympics together, Lee winning a gold and a bronze medal and Draves winning two golds.

Sammy trained at Indian Springs, influencing and being influenced by Vicki and other Olympic competitors such as Juno Stover Irwin and Pat McCormick. Irwin competed in several Olympics, earning bronze, while McCormick won an incredible four gold medals. Sammy Lee went to the Olympics again in 1952, bringing home another gold medal.

After Lee served as an Army doctor in the Korean War, he returned to L.A. to face some of his most challenging discrimination. Now a war veteran and successful doctor, he sought to buy a house in Orange County near his practice. Not once but twice he was dissuaded from purchasing a home in “white neighborhoods” and even received threats. But he had a successful medical career, and stayed involved in the Olympics (he trained Greg Louganis!). At 95, he still swims every day. Dr. Sammy Lee was one of the many athletes who trained at our own Indian Springs pool, and is today a hero of the Korean-American community.

I want to finish this article by talking about the Letter to the Editor “Armenian (American?) Museum” (Jan. 28), a letter I found both disturbing and sad. Disturbing because of the thinly veiled hate under the surface of the letter, and sad because the writer is so unaware of the rich trove of ethnic and national museums already in Glendale and Los Angeles. The San Rafael and Verdugo Adobes display the vestiges of Mexico and Spain those early Spanish immigrants brought with them. Representing the Americans that followed in the late 1800s, we have the Doctor’s House and the Brand Library, showing the European influence they brought. In Los Angeles we have a Korean-American museum in Koreatown and a Japanese-American museum in Little Tokyo. Near Olvera Street is a Mexican-American Museum, a Chinese-American Museum, and a soon-to-open Italian-American Museum. Scattered around L.A. are museums dedicated to the Jewish faith, Finland, Pacific Islanders, African-Americans, Asia, and Latin-America. Heck, even cowboys have their own museum (but sadly, Indians don’t). Armenians, after the Genocide of 1915, absorbed the cultures of the various countries they fled to before immigrating to the U.S., making their experience uniquely multicultural. We’re all basically from somewhere else, and we’re all proud of our heritage. Hopefully, we’re curious about our neighbors’ heritage as well. I think we’d all benefit from an Armenian-American museum. I look forward to it.