Vicki Manalo Draves – The First Female Asian American Olympic Champion Part 1: Teamed Up with Mentor and Friend Sammy Lee to Become Asia America’s Dynamic Diving Duo of the London Games

Sammy Lee and Vicki Manalo Draves
Sammy Lee and Vicki Manalo Draves

Before there was Pat McCormick, Ingrid Engel-Kramer or Fu Mingxia, there was Vicki Manalo Draves.

At the 1948 London Olympics, the first summer games held since 1936, an abeyance caused by the Second World War, Manalo Draves became the first American woman to win two gold medals in an Olympic Games, as well as the first American woman to win both the springboard and platform diving finals at the Olympics.

Manalo Draves was also the first Asian American woman to win a medal in the Olympics. Born to a mother from England and a father from the Philippines, Manalo Draves grew up in the South-of-Market district of San Francisco. Her mother was a maid at a hotel and he father was a chef and musician on ships and a houseboy for an army colonel in the Presidio, doing all they could just to make ends meet. Certainly there was no money left over for swimming or diving lessons.

But somehow, Manalo Draves was spotted, and asked if she wanted to learn how to dive. And fortunately, she was in California, rich in swimming and diving coaches at the time. So learn she did, from one coach after another. Although not her coach, one of America’s best divers in 1944, Sammy Lee, saw Manalo Draves’ form, and introduced himself. Lee then introduced the young diver to a friend and diving coach, Lyle Draves. Not only did Lyle become Vicki’s coach, he became her life partner, married for over 60 years.

But wife or not, the husband worked the wife hard in training. As explained in this Central City article, she worked during the day as a secretary in San Francisco, and took a train across the bay to the Athens Athletic Club in Oakland where she trained every evening from 7pm to 10pm, making 50 to 100 dives a night. With victories at the US National Championships from 1946 – 48 in platform, as well as a championship in 1948 in springboard, Manalo Draves was building up to be a favorite for a medal in the 1948 London Olympics.

In 1948, Manalo Draves was battling teammate, Zoe Ann Olsen, in the springboard. Going into her last dive, having fallen behind Olsen, Manalo Draves could not talk to her coach, as coaches were forbidden to enter the competition space. Feeling she was unable to perform to her best, and worried that she was not going to nail her last dive – a back one-and-a-half layout – she went up to the only friendly face on the deck – teammate, Sammy Lee. As she wrote in the book, “Tales of Gold,” Lee told her what she needed to hear:

Newlyweds Victoria and Lyle Draves_1946
Newlyweds Victoria and Lyle Draves, 1946, from the book Tales of Gold

I was very worried about the last dive, which was a back one-and-a-half layout, because I had not been hitting it at all in practice. I said to him, “Oh Sam, what am I going to do? This is the dive I have to get.” He told me, “Come on. You didn’t come all this way just to say, “I can’t do it.’ You’ve got to get up there and hit it.”

Hit it she did. And as Manalo Draves won the platform competition going away, she earned two gold medals in London. As for Sammy Lee, he won gold in the platform and bronze in the springboard competition. The first Asian Americans to medal in the Olympics dominated the diving competition at the 1948 London Games. Lee, who would become Dr Sammy Lee, serving in the US Army Medical Corps in South Korea during the Korean War, would be a coach and a friend to some of the greatest divers of the 20th century.

In the case of Manalo Draves, Lee not only introduced Manalo Draves to her husband, he was the one who gave Manalo Draves away at her wedding, as her father had already passed away.

Manalo Draves went on to a career as a swimming entertainer, performing with Buster Crabbe and Esther Williams. And then she stopped, disappearing from the American consciousness for decades.