Vicki Manalo Draves – The First Female Asian American Olympic Champion Part 2: We All Need Role Models

Zoe Ann Olsen, Vicki Draves and Patsy Elsener
American silver, gold and bronze medalists in the springboard finals, Zoe Ann Olsen, Vicki Draves and Patsy Elsener, at the 1948 London Olympics

Vicki Manalo Draves was the most successful member of the US swimming and diving team at the 1948 London Olympics, the only American to win two individual gold medals. She was also the first Asian American woman to be an Olympic champion.

And yet for decades after her amazing achievements in London, Manalo Draves drifted into relative obscurity. Granted, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969. But in her hometown of San Francisco, she had gone virtually unrecognized and unknown for much of her life. In the first half of the 20th century, when Manalo Draves was growing up, she had to deal with the conscious and unconscious bias of the times, as she was the child of a English mother and a Filipino father.

For example, in order to get access to diving facilities at a swimming club in San Francisco, Vicki Manalo was told by her coach to assume her mother’s maiden name, Taylor, which would make the members of the club more comfortable, presumably.

As Rodel Rodis wrote in this article for the Inquirer.net, “if she had represented the Philippines when she won her two gold medals, there would have been parks and schools named after her, and monuments of her erected all over the Philippines to celebrate her inspiring victory.”

Manalo Draves actually got a taste of that kind of adulation when she and her husband/coach, Lyle Draves, visited the Philippines after her gold-medal victories in London, according to this Central City article. They spent a month in both the capitol of Manila and her father’s hometown of Orani, Bataan, where she held diving exhibitions in the day time, and partied in the evenings.

“It was a wonderful experience. And I dived for the president at the palace swimming pool,” said Vicki Draves.

“But they kept us up every night nighclubbing until 3 or 4 in the morning,” said Lyle Draves.

Victoria Manalo Draves Park Plaque
Victoria Manalo Draves Park Plaque

Today, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame (BASHOF) has not included their double gold medalist from South of Market district (SoMa). But fortunately, before Manalo Draves passed away in 2010, she was honored by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission, which approved the naming of a park after the Olympic champion. On October 27, 2006, a 2-acre park in the 1000 block of Folsom was dubbed the Victoria Manalo Draves Park.

“I got some breaks, very much so,” said Manalo Draves in this article. “And I’d say to any young people, if they have dreams to follow them, see them all the way through no matter what it takes. And always be fair and kind.”

My grandfather migrated to San Francisco in 1903 to run the Japanese-American YMCA for many years. My father was born in J-Town in 1929, five years after Vicki Manalo was born. I’d like to think they knew of Vicki Manalo and cheered the exploits of a fellow Asian American from San Francisco, after the trauma the West Coast Japanese Americans faced during World War II.

We all need role models.