In 1948, Vicki Manalo Draves was the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal.

442: Diving into Olympic History

Vicki Manalo Draves overcame racism and discrimination to become the first Asian American to win Olympic gold

In 1948, Vicki Manalo Draves was the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal.

Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley

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Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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Vicki Manalo Draves’ (1924-2010) diving career was marked by many firsts.

At the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, she became the first woman to win gold in both the 10-meter platform and 3-meter springboard events. With these wins, she became the first American woman to win two gold medals in diving, and the first Asian American to win Olympic gold (her friend and fellow diver Sammy Lee became the second Asian American to win gold two days later in the men’s 10-meter platform event).

But while Draves may have been born for the water, it wasn’t always easy for her to get some pool time.

As the daughter of a Filipino father and English mother whose interracial marriage may have been legal but was still frowned upon by society, Draves (born Victoria Manalo) and her family faced a great deal of racism and discrimination. (Draves’ English aunt, also married to a Filipino man, died in an elevator “accident” after she rejected outside pressures to divorce him.)

Growing up in San Francisco’s South-of-Market district, Draves originally wanted to learn ballet, but her family couldn’t afford lessons. Instead, she took up swimming when she was about 10, learning from the Mission Red Cross, according to Inverse. She didn’t start diving until she was 16.

Because of her race, Draves couldn’t swim or dive at the fancy private clubs. Instead, she trained in public, segregated pools that only allowed people of color access once a week, according to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum. These pools would be drained and cleaned shortly after these sessions.

According to her obituary in The New York Times, Draves tried to join the Fairmont Hotel Swimming and Diving Club in San Francisco when she was 17, but was shut out because of her Filipina heritage. Instead the club’s coach, Phil Patterson, formed the “Patterson School of Swimming and Diving” for her. Draves, who once described Patterson as “a prejudiced man,” said the school “wasn’t special for (her). It was his way of separating (her) from the others.” It’s unclear why Patterson agreed to coach her in the first place despite his prejudices. He also told Draves she had to change her name to Taylor, her mother’s maiden name. Draves and her mother reluctantly agreed. Draves never knew how her father felt about this change because she said he never said anything.

In 1944, at the age of 19, her friend and fellow diver Lee introduced her to Lyle Draves, who became her coach. Teaming up with Lyle led to five national titles from 1946-48 for Vicki Draves. The two married in 1946. When Draves made it to the 1948 London Olympics not only did her performance make history, she also took back her name, going by Vicki Manalo Draves for the competition.

After the London games, Draves went on tour across the United States and Europe with other well-known swimmers and divers at the time. Eventually, she and Lyle settled down in California. They started a family, as well as a swimming and diving training program together.

Draves was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969. In addition, in 2005, her and her twin sister Connie’s old elementary school in San Francisco became Victoria Manalo Draves Park.

Draves died in 2010 and was survived by her husband, four sons and twin sister.

Published on August 3, 2022

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Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.