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.

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.

Chinese Cultural Minister Luo Shugang Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Culture, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan
Chinese Cultural Minister Luo Shugang Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Culture, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan

Think about it. The next three Olympic Games will be held in Asia:

  • 2018 Winter Olympics: PyeongChang, South Korea
  • 2020 Summer Olympics: Tokyo, Japan
  • 2022 Winter Olympics: Beijing, China

In the history of the modern Olympiad, the majority of host cities selected for both Summer and Olympic Games have been in Europe. In the period of 1896 to 1952, only three of the first 20 Olympiads were held outside Europe, the others in the USA. From 1956 to 2016, the diversity of host cities improved, with only 50% of the Olympiads held in Europe.

But for the first time, three Olympiads in a row will be held in Asia. In the world of diplomacy, that smells like opportunity. So when the culture ministers of Japan, China and South Korea met in Kyoto for their annual meeting of minds in August, 2017, they announced that they will organize joint events to spread the depth and beauty of East Asian culture within the three countries in connection to the upcoming Olympiads in Asia.

While the specifics of the plan are to be determined by an “experts’ body” to be set up, it was agreed that five cities in each of the three countries would be identified as locales for these cultural exhibitions and exchanges. In fact, according to this Japan Today article, this is an expansion of an initiative called the Culture Cities of East Asia Program, that had started in 2014. China’s Changsha and South Korea’s Daegu are already hosting such events. Next year, Japan’s Kanazawa will be host.

Other areas of partnership cited in The Japan Times include:

  • Efforts to strengthen copyright protections for cultural products
  • Continued trilateral dialogue on preserving the intangible cultural heritage of all three countries.
  • Support of UNESCO’s International Research Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region, which works to protect, preserve and promote intangible culture such as traditional music, dance, performing arts and craftsmanship.

Examples of “intangible cultural heritage” in Japan would be noh, washoku (traditional Japanese food), and washi (traditional hand-made paper).

With so much geo-political tension in the region, exacerbated by the sabre-rattling of North Korea, there is a belief that diplomacy, through the promotion of the respective nations’ cultural heritage, can promote the cause of peace, according to Kyoto mayor, Daisaku Kadokawa.

The East Asian region shares a long history of exchanges. Here in Kyoto, you can see and feel the cultural elements of the region. The power of culture can help bring the region together, and lead to peace.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum

Canagasabai Kunalan strolled through the Singapore Sports Museum, walking his guest through Singapore’s greatest sporting achievements, explaining the history with enthusiasm, with the skills honed over decades as a teacher.

But C. Kunalan was more than just a teacher. As we walked through the corridors, passers-by would recognize the fit, elderly gentleman as the man who held the title, Singapore’s fastest, for decades. In fact, Kunalan had held at different points the fastest marks in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters in Singapore track history.

It was 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, when Kunalan set the Singapore record for 100 meters, a mark that stood for 33 years.

Jim Hines set the world record in the 100-meters in Mexico City with a time of 9.95, considerably faster than Kunalan’s 10.38. But when you think about it purely from a statistical perspective, Singapore had a tiny talent pool. The population of Singapore in 1968 was 2 million, only 1% of the entire US population, and roughly the same population of Hines’ state of Arkansas that year.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_2
Kunalan finishing third (719) in a 100-meter heat to advance. Eventual gold winner Jim Hines strolls into the finish.

Kunalan defied the odds, advancing beyond the first round at the Mexico City Games to be recognized as one of the top 32 fastest men in the world. And if you know the history of Southeast Asia in the 1960s, you know that in 1968, Singapore was only in its third year as a sovereign nation. It wasn’t clear until the last days before departing Singapore whether Kunalan had the funds to even travel to Mexico.

In the end, Kunalan made it to Mexico City, and he was there to compete. But he knew, as a sprinter, he and his teammates were significantly behind those in the advanced industrial economies, or in the nations under the flag or influence of the Soviet Union. In his biography, C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete, written by Steven Quek, a one-time colleague of his in the National Institute of Education, Quek explains how support and role modeling by others contributed to his development.

At the Mexico City Olympics Kunalan recalled simple but powerful gestures: USA Assistant Track Coach Stan Wright offering Kunalan the use of Team USA’s masseurs for a pre-competition rub down, or Bahaman sprinter Tom Robinson coming up to Kunalan to suggest that the Singaporean be aware that he was exerting too much effort into the first 20 meters of his sprint, when he should in fact be conscious of staying relaxed. “Tom, a world-class athlete, was willingly sharing advice with an unknown from Asia. Kunalan never forgot this.”

After Kunalan’s competitions ended, he was then able to watch the very best athletes in the world demonstrate the highest levels of physical achievement:

Ever the teacher, Kunalan understood that for Singapore athletes to succeed internationally, to reach the world-class levels on display at the Olympics, their training must improve, as he explained in a letter to his wife:

We must get very serious about training. There are about 6 short men all doing 10 or 10.1. Why? Arms and legs big!! Mine only 1/2. You know darling! If I can get their strength, I will be doing 10 sec too.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_1
C, Kunalan in Mexico City

Kunalan would retire from track in 1970, but would go on to become one of Singapore’s most successful primary and secondary school teachers, twice being recognized as “Teacher of the Year”. He currently works for the Singapore Sports Council, in offices near the Singapore Sports Museum.

Maybe you’ll be lucky to see him there, get a tour like I did, and learn from a man who has literally lived the history of Singapore sports.

Frederic Weiss at a Knicks camp

It was the end of June, 1999, and my New York Knicks had come off a stunning run to make it to the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. They lost in five games, but the energy and excitement that Latrell Sprewell, Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Marcus Camby brought to New York City was electric!

It was a great time to be a Knick fan!

But a week later, still basking in the glory of my team’s incredible season-ending run, the powers that be in the Knickerbocker management team made a decision in the NBA draft that puzzled, if not deflated the fan base. With the fifteenth pick in the first round of the draft, the Knicks selected Frédéric Weis.

Qui?

Weis was from France, a seven footer, perhaps someone to clog up the middle. Who was pick number 16? One of the most talented players to come out of my favorite university college team, Ron Artest, who would go on to become a volatile but brilliant All-Star in his career. (Yes, Artest of St. John’s University, would change his name to Metta World Peace.)

But what of Weis?

For starters, the Knicks’ coach, Jeff van Gundy did not appear to be supportive of the selection. Weis, overjoyed to be drafted, soon felt the cold shoulder once he arrived in the United States for the Knicks’ summer league camps where rookies and others are worked out. Weis was not considered inspired material, but he was a first round draft pick, which afforded him the right to sign a contract that would have made him a Knick. But thanks to his agent, he declined so that he could play another year with his professional team in France. Weis personally believes that was a mistake.

Then came the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and perhaps the most famous dunk in Olympic history, perhaps in basketball history. The American team were facing the French national team, and pretty much handling the French, up by 15 with 16 minutes to play in the game. The French rebounded the ball at their end of the court, one player bounced pass a ball that went a bit too high for his teammate. That’s when Vince Carter, one of the NBA’s most dynamic players at that time, came charging in, snatching that high pass, dribble twice and then leaping for a thunderous dunk. In his path was Weis, who Carter simply lept over, all 2.18 meters of him.

That play has been dubbed “Le dunk de la morte,” or the Dunk of Death.

Vinsanity went into overdrive. Weis, if he were a stock, nosedived – a symbol of all the terrible talent decisions Knick management had made in the past (and in the future).

And that was despite the fact that Weis played well on a French team that won the silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Weis never played a game as a New York Knick. After the Olympics and his return to France, no efforts were made by Knick management to make him a part of the team. In other words, to Knicks fans, Weis was a total waste of a good draft pick.

The New York Times followed up on Weis in September, 2015, with this wonderful but sad story of a man whose basketball career, so full of promise, never took off, and a life that appeared to deteriorate year on year.

Vince Carter Frederic Weiss in Le Duck du Mort

A couple of years after winning silver at the Olympics, Weis and his wife Celia had a boy named Enzo. A year later, the boy was diagnosed to be autistic, which was hard for Weis to handle, so much so that the couple separated, Celia taking Enzo away. Bouts of depression became deeper, until finally Weis decided he had had enough of himself. Here’s how the New York Times told that story:

On the morning when Frédéric Weis tried to kill himself, he dreamed about owning a beach house. A beach house had been Weis’s dream for a long time. In France, in Spain, in Greece — wherever his career as a 7-foot-2 professional basketball player took him. He liked the sand, he liked the surf. A beach house was a good dream.

But on that day, in January 2008, the dream did not make him smile. Weis got into his car in Bilbao, Spain, around 10 a.m. and began the drive here, to this small city in west-central France best known for its production of fine china. He was on his way to see his wife and son. About 90 minutes into the drive, Weis suddenly pulled over at a rest area near Biarritz, a French town not far from the border.

He stopped the car, leaned back in his seat and, at 30 years old, considered all that had happened to him during his career… Weis thought about all this for a while. Then he thought about the beach house. Then he thought about his son, Enzo. Then he reached over, took out the box of sleeping pills he had brought with him and swallowed every single one.

But, as the article explained, Weis did not pass on. He instead fell into a deep sleep, waking up 10 hours later realizing he was still alive. “He had failed, and for once, this made him happy. ‘It was the luckiest I’ve been in my life,’ he said.”

Frederic Weiss tobacco shop
Frederic Weiss at his tobacco shop

Weiss returned to basketball in Spain and France before retiring in 2011. When the New York Times caught up with him in Limoges, France, where he was running a tobacco store and a bar, battling bouts of depression, but back with his wife Celia and son Enzo.

Life goes on for the man made famous by the Dunk of Death.

Benjamin Spock with children
Dr. Benjamin Spock

One of the most famous names in America in pediatric health, at least in the 20th Century, was a man named Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book, Baby and Child Care, was a perennial best seller and the bible on child care. The only other book to outsell his in America – the actual Bible.

What I didn’t know was that Spock was a gold medalist, a member of the American eight-man crew that was so dominant at the 1924 Paris Olympics that their time of 6 minutes and 33 seconds was almost 16 seconds faster than the second-placed Canadian crew.

A renown expert in the medical field, an Olympic champion, Spock was a name in America few did not know. And yet, despite a relatively wealthy upbringing, he was not born with confidence and expectations of greatness. As he explains in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, Spock explained that his mother was a very devoted tyrant, and his father was a self-made man who was obsessed with status, proud to have been a member of the finest and exclusive social clubs at Yale University.

When Spock entered Yale, I believe around 1921, he wrote:

I felt very unsure of myself. I felt unpopular and unable to compete with other boys. I felt like a sissy, a mother’s boy, and I was timid. I was afraid they might bully me and that I would not be able to do the things they were able to do.

Sports was an acceptable avenue of exploration, and he continued his focus on the high jump, which he trained in at his high school. But try as he could, he could not improve beyond mediocrity. One day in his freshman year, he walked by the rowers in the Yale gym. In rowing, height can be an advantage. Despite his skinny frame, Spock was tall, six feet four inches (1.9 meters), and so caught the eye of the captain of Yale’s rowing team.

“What sport do you go out for?”, said the captain.

“High jumping,” said Spock.

“Why don’t you go out for a man’s sport?” said the captain.

To Spock, who yearned to be seen as a man’s man, these were the words that struck his soul. To be seen as having potential in one of the most respected and manly of sports at the time – rowing – was a revelation. “I was elated. The captain of the crew thought that I might be crew material! That had never occurred to me.”

Benjamin Spock
From the book, Tales of Gold

Granted, the Yale squad was one of the worst crew teams in the United States. As Spock described, their technique was outdated. “You’d lie way, way back to get the length of the stroke and pull the oar up almost to your chin and shove it away.” But during Spock’s freshman year, the rowing committee at Yale decided it was time to change things up, so they hired a coach out of Washington named Ed Leader, who transformed the stroke and the team.

In two years under Leader’s leadership, Yale’s rowing team went from worst to first, and Spock’s eight-man crew defeated a crew made up of US Navy officers fairly handily, earning the right to compete at the Paris Summer Olympic Games. In Paris, the American eight from Yale were considered favorites with perennial favorites, The Thames Rowing Club of Great Britain. Fortunately for the US, the Thames Rowing Club had in Paris only four members of the crew which won the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta the previous year, perhaps paving a golden path for Spock and his team.

Baby and Child Care coverAs Spock wrote about his team’s gold-medal-winning finals, “the race itself was an anticlimax. We won by, I think, 3-and-a-half boat lengths. You’re not meant to win a race that short by as much as a boat length.”

Spock graduated from Yale, and then got his doctor of medicine at Columbia University, launching a career to become America’s most famous pediatrician. Interestingly, Spock became very critical of putting children or young adults into “excessive competition”, worrying that parents were putting too much pressure on their children. “The problem is,” he wrote in 1985 in Tales of Gold, “that Americans are meant to be the best in everything.” He even had thoughts about parenting in Japan, arguably an early hotbed for prototypical Tiger Moms.

I was visiting Japan, and if any country is worse than the U.S. for competitive youngsters, it is Japan. Their educators told me that a shocking number of elementary school children commit suicide and that the number is going up every year. They commit suicide because they don’t think they’re getting grades high enough to satisfy their parents. What kind of society is that in which children have to kill themselves because they can’t compete?

Abdul Khaliq and Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh (right) barely edging out Abdul Khaliq in the 200-meter finals of the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo.

He arrived at Haneda Airport in May of 1958, camera bulbs popping and microphones thrust towards him. He was driven to The Dai-ichi Hotel escorted by police on motorcycles, greeted by fans asking for autographs.

Having recently broken the Asian speed records in both the 400 meters and 200 meters, Milkha Singh was a sports hero throughout Asia, and was in Tokyo to compete in the 1958 Asian Games.

Eyes bleary and bloodshot from a long flight from Calcutta, India, Singh still was amazed when he arrived in Japan, as he described in his autobiography, The Race of My LIfe. “I was thrilled to have been given a chance to visit Japan, a country I admired for the tenacious way they had rehabilitated themselves after the devastation wrought by the Second World War. When we landed at Tokyo Airport, our eyes were dazzled by the brightness of the multicolored lights. The puddles of water that had collected after a recent shower glowed with the reflection of the lights as well.”

It was at these Asian Games where Singh established his famous rivalry with Pakistani, Abdul Khaliq, the fastest 100-meter sprinter in Asia at the time. According to Singh, when Singh was first introduced to Khaliq at the hotel, with a friendly warning to watch out for Singh in the 200 meters, “Khaliq shot back, ‘I have met and run races with many a Tom, Dick and Harry like him. They are no match for me.”

On Day 2 of the Asian Games, Singh was favored to win the 400-meter race, which he did fairly handily. His time of 46.6 seconds was an Asian record, which the Japanese crowd greeted with an eruption of cheers. “I felt my hair stand on end and a shiver of delight ran through me,” he wrote. And when he saw the Indian flag rise high, he wrote that “it was the most stirring moment in my life and I was filled with great patriotic fervour seeing the Tricolor fluttering in the open blue sky.”

But his defining moment of truth was still to come.

The 200-meter competition was held the next day. Khaliq of Pakistan had won the 100-meter finals. Singh of India had won the 400-meter finals. Thus, bragging rights for fastest man in Asia would be determined in Asian Games 200-meter finals.

After the starting gun was fired, and the six sprinters made their way up the straightaway, Khaliq and Singh were essentially neck and neck at the 100-meter mark. With Singh on the innermost lane and Khaliq a couple of lanes to Singh’s right, they both knew it was going to be a fight to the finish.

Despite focusing on our running, we were each aware of the other’s progress and were pushing ourselves and our utmost limits. It was fast, it was furious, it was neck-to-neck. There was high drama. About three or four yards from the finishing line, I pulled a muscle on my right leg. Then my legs got entangled and I tripped and tumbled over the finishing line. At that very moment, Khaliq breasted the tape too.

Milkha Singh tumbling over finish line at Tokyo Asian Games from The Race of My Life
From Singh’s autobiography, The Race of My Life.

It took about 30 minutes for the judges to analyze the photographs taken at the finish line from multiple angles. In the end, the judges determined Singh the victor. “I was now Asia’s best athlete!”

Japan leveraged these 1958 Games, showing off its new National Stadium and its ability to run a major international sports competition. The next year, Tokyo was selected to host the 1964 Summer Olympics. Singh would go on to take gold at the 400 meters at the Commonweatlh Games in London, and earn the moniker, The Flying Sikh, and become a favorite to be the first Asian to win a gold in track at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

In the early 1960s, Milkha Singh, along with C. K. Yang emerged as the great Asian hopes in athletics.

Milkha Singh heros welcome from The Race of My Life
Milkha Singh returns from Tokyo to India, from The Race of My Life