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.

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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.

Fanny Blankers Koen in Tokyo_Asahi Graf 2

She was 46 years old, and she walked around Tokyo with an air of confidence and style. Fanny Blankers-Koen was in Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Olympics, and the Japanese press followed her around – after all, she was one of the most accomplished Olympians in town. At the age of 30 at the 1948 London Olympics, she became the first woman to win four gold medals in a single Games, replicating the 1936 accomplishments of her hero, Jesse Owens.

Fanny Blankers Koen in Tokyo_Asahi Graf 1

In the October 23, 1964 edition of the Japanese magazine, Asahi Graf, Blankers-Koen was featured in a photo spread, looking relaxed and glamourous. The article shows her walking about town, relaxing in the Olympic Village, describing her as a tall woman with golden hair and light blue eyes.

Fanny Blankers Koen in Tokyo_Asahi Graf 3

The article states she is the “chaperone” to the Netherland’s women’s athletics steam, but as fellow Dutch and Olympian, Ada Kok, wrote to me, she was actually one of several coaches on the Dutch Olympic squad.

The article quotes a Japanese swimmer, Hiroshi Furubashi, who knew Blankers-Koen, saying that she was a hero to the Dutch after her dramatic accomplishments in London in 1948. But as I wrote in previous posts, despite her historic accomplishments, she was never embraced in her home country as she was outside it. Kok said that the Dutch team at the 1964 Olympics treated Blankers-Koen as they did everyone else, quite neutrally, as just another member of the team.

Fanny Blankers Koen in Tokyo_Asahi Graf 5

“It may be a very bad Dutch habit, but our well known sportspeople were more recognised and honoured abroad then in the Netherlands,” said Kok. “The Dutch are more like, ‘act normal and keep both feet on the ground’, no matter how famous you become in your sport.”

And as I wrote in this post, Blankers-Koen was a very complex person, who was driven by a need to win at everything, and to be recognized as an achiever. It is unlikely she got that sense of fulfillment in her home culture. But when she came to Japan, she was a star.

Fanny Blankers Koen with her children 2
Fanny Blankers Koen with her children and husband.

We meet competitive people all the time. Some of them can be jerks – for them, winning is everything, and relationships are secondary. As this Psychology Today article hints, competitive people can be overly narcissistic and self-centered, “not seeing you as a separate human being, but more as an extension of themselves.” The article also explains that competitive people could have issues of self esteem. “When they are doing well, they feel great and even superior to others, whereas when they encounter setbacks, they tend to feel shame and self-doubt. This results in anxiety and vigilance around social status and performance.”

Sometimes, we learn that even our heroes are prone to this kind of behavior. Arguably one of the greatest stories of the 1948 London Olympics was Fanny Blankers-Koen. The “Flying Dutchwoman” as the woman from Holland was called, won an amazing four gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 80-meter hurdles, the 200-meters and the 4×100 relay.

Often described as a shy, gangly 30-year-old housewife, people were amazed at her accomplishments, often wondering what her medal would have been if the Olympics were not canceled in 1940 and 1944, arguably Blanker-Koen’s prime years. In 1999, the IAAF recognized her as the sportswoman of the 20th century. As written in the journal of the International Society of Olympic Historians, as celebrated as Fanny Blankers-Koen was, she was not beloved by those closest to her.

Een Koningin Met Mannenbenen_Fanny Blankers-Koen

This article mentions a book called, in Dutch, Een Koningin Met Mannenbenen written by Kees Kooman, a sportswriter, author and investigative journalist. Although not yet translated in English, the title would be something like – “A Queen with Man’s Legs”. According to Kees, Blankers-Koen had this to say about her mother:

I think my mother never loved herself; while the other way around she could not give love and friendship herself to other people! Laying an arm around your shoulder like my father used to do, was an impossibility for her.

Here is another quote from the book in this article in The Independent:

Fanny Snr’s brother, Huib Koen, told Kooman: “My sister was a girl who always did what she wanted to do but, to be honest with you, she was really always a bitch.”

Kees, a sports writer of good repute, explains in The Independent article that she was very much a competitive personality, and it got in the way of relationships:

Fanny wasn’t only the shy, nice Dutch housewife. Sport was everything to her and she wanted to win in everything. If she was out on her bike and someone was ahead of her she had to beat them. When she was 65 and she was told about someone knitting a sweater in a week, she was so jealous she had to do it herself.

Sport was more important to her than her children. Her daughter and her son were both critical of her. As her daughter said, she didn’t love herself. She had problems with confidence. I think she was searching for it on the track.

 

Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 200 meters in London
Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 200 meters in London

 

When Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics, she was 30 years old and a mother of two.

Despite the fact that the war-ravaged years of the 1940s resulted in athletes of all ages, she was considered too old. The Smithsonian noted the reaction of TeamGB’s team manager, Jack Crump, who “took one look at Blankers-Koen and said she was ‘too old to make the grade.’”

Even more amazingly, Blankers-Koen won the gold in the 100-meters, the 80-meter hurdles, the 200-meters and the 4×100 relay while 3 months pregnant! If the press was aware of that, it’s possible Blankers-Koen would have been attacked more aggressively. And yet, the what the press wrote must have rankled, typically being described as the “shy, towering, drably domesticated” housewife.

According to The Economist, she was reported to say, “I got very many bad letters”, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with…short trousers.”

The Smithsonian noted that the press was commonly patronizing of her, “hyping Blankers-Koen as the ‘Flying Housewife…’ Newspaper coverage of her exploits reflected the sexism of the time in other ways. One reporter wrote that she ran ‘like she was chasing the kids out of the pantry.’ Another observed that she ‘fled through her trial heats as though racing to the kitchen to rescue a batch of burning biscuits.'”

And yet, Blankers-Koen was indeed in conflict between personal achievement and family. After she had won her second gold medal in the 80-meters, barely, she was ready to go home. The unending criticism and the pressure to win combined made her homesick. But her husband and coach, Jan Blankers, convinced her that glory was hers for the taking. So Blankers-Koen trooped on, still breaking down in tears after a 200-meter heat.

Fanny Blankers Koen with her children

The Flying Dutchwoman went on to win gold in the 200 meters and 4×100 relay, convincingly, establishing her place in the Olympic Pantheon of greats. Blankers-Koen set 16 world records in eight different athletic disciplines. In 1999, she was voted female athlete of the 20th century by the International Association of Athletics.

And while it may not have seemed so at the time, Blankers-Koen made a difference. So thought Sebastian Coe head of the organizing committee for the 2012 London Olympics:

“She moved the discussion on about the ability of women, particularly post World War II. A lot of things came together at the same time, particularly women who were taking up jobs that were often vacated by men” (who did not survive the fighting). “Women were showing that they were physically the equals of those jobs when it was assumed that they were not.”

She was 18 years old at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a competitor in the high jump and the 4×100 relay. She did not win any medals but the tall woman from Lage Vuursche in Holland, but she did get the autograph of one Jesse Owens.

Owens was the star of the 1936 Games, reportedly showing up der Fuhrer by winning four gold medals. Fanny Blankers-Koen would also go on to win four gold medals in the Olympics, but she would have to wait 12 more years, as the Olympics were cancelled during the war years, before she could compete on the highest stage.

Watch the video above of the first woman to win four gold medals, which she did at the 1948 London Olympics. Blankers-Koen was absolutely dominant.

In her first competition, Blankers-Koen led the 100-meter dash nearly from start to finish.

In her next event, she had to work the hardest, coming from behind to barely win the 80-meter hurdles, but still in Olympic record time.

Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 80 meter hurdles in London
Fanny Blankers-Koen winning the 80 meter hurdles in London in 1948.

In her third triumph, Blankers-Koen won the 200-meters in the first lane, eating up the water-drenched track like a locomotive, well ahead of the 2nd place finisher, in Olympic record time.

And finally, in 4×100 meter relay, the Dutch team, in their orange shorts, were trailing in third when their anchor, Blankers-Koen took the baton. And like a rocket, she shot to the lead and crossed the line with her fourth gold medal.

Like her hero in Berlin, Jesse Owens, Blankers-Koen won four gold medals, the first woman ever to do so.   According to the Smithsonian, Blankers-Koen met Owens again, this time in Munich in 1972.

“I still have your autograph,” she told her hero.  “I’m Fanny Blankers-Koen.”

“You don’t have to tell me who you are,” Owens replied. “I know everything about you.”

 

emil-zatopek-in-pain
“He runs like a man who has just been stabbed in the heart.”

It sounds too good be true – Hollywood script perfect.

The balding veteran, past his prime, and yet a threat in the back of the minds of the favorites, gets himself ready at the starting line of the marathon. This wasn’t Finland. It is Australia, where it is 30 degrees celsius, a good dozen degrees hotter, and where Emil Zátopek won the marathon to cap an unprecedented sweep of golds in the 5k, 10k and marathon at the 1952 Olympics.

Like a weary warrior, about to lead his troops, one more time into the breach, he is said to have uttered these famous words to his fellow competitors: “Men, today we die a little.”

According to Richard Askwith, author of a brilliant biography of Zátopek , it is unclear if Zátopek said these words at that moment, but based on his deep understanding of the man, he believes he could have said them. “It is hard to think of a neater encapsulation of his spirit: his cheerful camaraderie; his dry humour; and his slightly bonkers bravado in the face of the agonies of his sport. It was also, in context, a starkly accurate prognosis.”

When Zátopek finished the marathon in sixth place, his Olympic career was over. At the age of 34, Zátopek , who over three Olympiads since 1948, became perhaps the most famous athlete in the world, and a beloved hero in his home country of Czechoslovakia. And while one marathon finished, another one would begin.

The Cold War in Europe was reaching frigid temperatures. Just prior to the 1956 Melbourne Games, the Soviet Union had sent troops into Budapest, Hungary to quell an uprising. Twelve years later, Soviet troops would enter Prague, Czechoslovakia for similar reasons. As described in my previous post on Zatopek, the folk hero of Czechoslovakia, when the tanks entered the Czech capital, was at the center of the invasion, shouting in protest for all to see, moving from tank to tank in an attempt to talk sense (in Russian) into the Soviet soldiers. While Zatopek had no noticeable impact on the Soviet presence, his own role in these protests were noticed by the authorities.

With the reformist government in Czechoslovakia brought to heel, and a Soviet-friendly regime in place, Zátopek’s life was turned upside down. Due to his legendary status, he was not sent to a labor prison, nor did he end up deceased. Instead, he found himself out of a job, no longer a member of the Czechoslovakian Army or the Communist Party. He was, as Askwith explained in this synopsis of his book, Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time, a pariah. He could not find work easily. His name was scrubbed from the history books, his many sporting accomplishments – a source of immense pride to Czech leaders and citizens alike up to that time – only to be uttered in whispers.

While Zátopek was one of the most beloved personalities in sports the world over, in Czechoslovakia, friends and relatives were reluctant to go near him. The only work he could find tended to be isolated and hard, which likely caused Zatopek to drink heavily. His marriage suffered and he aged quickly. As Askwith poignantly shows in the synopsis article, he had lost his joie de vivre.

Once, near the village of Lytomysl, a local woman sent her son to present him with a small gift, a piece of smoked meat. The boy was shocked by the disheveled figure who opened the maringotka door. “I am not the Zátopek you used to know,” confessed Emil, bottle in hand.

But like a marathon, eventually over time, you get closer to the goal you long for. Zátopek endured a public shunning and an unofficial banishment to the hinterlands for some five years. But he was not forgotten outside Czechoslovakia. When the Summer Olympics were to be held in Munich in 1972, Zátopek was invited. When the foreman of his mining team refused to allow Zátopek leave for three weeks to be the guest of honor of the world’s greatest sporting fest, back-channel discussions went into hyperdrive, and finally Zátopek was allowed to leave the country and be celebrated in Germany.

emil-zatopek-funeral
The funeral of Emil Zatopek

A year later, Zátopek was invited to attend the funeral of famed Finnish runner, Pavel Nurmi. His quick and uneventful visit to Finland, coupled with a sudden flow of requests to have Zátopek be a guest of honor at this meet or that, made Czech officials realize that lying about Zátopek’s availability was becoming an unnecessary burden. Zátopek was not going to flee and embarrass the country, and was in fact, reminding the world that Zátopek was a legendary athlete from Czechoslovakia.

Zátopek never returned to folk hero status in Czechoslovakia, even after the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989,when then President Vaclav Havel awarded Zátopek the “Order of the White Lion”, officially rehabilitating his reputation. But when he passed away in 2000, the outpouring of respect and love for the ungainly and misproportioned runner from Kopřivnice was immense.

Zátopek’s life-long marathon had ended. But as Juan Antonio Samaramnch, then president of the International Olympic Committee said upon the posthumous awarding of the Pierre de Coubertin medal to Zátopek, “Emil was a living legend. And a legend never dies.”

juan-antonio-samaranch-at-emil-zatopeks-funeral
Juan Antonio Samaranch (second from right), President of the International Olympic Committee, attends the funeral of Czech runner Emil Zatopek December 6, 2000 at the National Theater in Prague, Czech Republic. December 06, 2000
sammy-lee-on-the-podium-1952-olympics
Sammy Lee on the podium (center) at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics
  • He was a doctor.
  • He was an officer in the US Army, serving in Korea.
  • He was an Olympian, a two-time gold medalist in platform diving.
  • And he was a coach of Olympians, both formally and informally, not just of American medalists, but of divers around the world.

He was Dr. Sammy Lee. And on December 2, 2016, this great man passed away.

I am an Asian American, and I am proud of the example my grandfather, and my father – both of whom are people I can openly say are my role models. But for Asian Americans, we sometimes complain about our lack of Asian American heroes on the big screen, in the big leagues, in the government. It’s a silly thought of course – examples abound and I won’t list them here (because I am Asian).

But if I were to mention one special role model in the sporting world, it would have to be Dr. Sammy Lee, a Korean American and a diving legend. To be honest, until I started my book project on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I was not so aware of him, although I was familiar with the name. However, when I met diving Olympians like Frank Gorman, Soren Svejstrup, Jeanne Collier, and Bob Webster, I realized that Sammy Lee transcended race, that he was a role model for the world, particularly for the world of diving.

sammy-leeHe inspired: He was the very best in platform diving in the world, winning the gold medal in the 10 meter dive at the 1948 London Games, and the 1952 Helsinki Games, in addition to being a medical doctor and an officer in the US Army.

He knew how to get the best out of you: In this article, two-time gold medalist Webster told me that Lee knew how to light a fire in your belly, how to believe in yourself, and how he would do it with equal parts pressure and humor. He was regimented in his training plan for you and he was strict in making you follow it, but he got results out of you.

He was committed to you, in many cases, for life: Lee took diving champion Greg Louganis into his home to train him for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In this article, I wrote that he spent time coaching promising young divers who showed up without coaches, eventual champions like Gorman and Svejstrup, and always stayed in touch.

Collier told me that Lee would always have a camera and would make sure he took a picture of the divers he knew as they stood on the medal podium, and then send it to them. “He is one of the greatest people on the planet,” gushed Collier.

Said Svejstrup, who said that at a time in his career when he was inexperienced and unsure of himself, Lee stood up for him. “I was grateful, and of course I lost my heart to Sammy forever.”

Simmons Kelly Kurtz Laurie Rampling
Left to right, clockwise: Jean Simmons, Grace Kelly, Swoosie Kurtz, Charlotte Rampling, Hugh Laurie

These are famous actors and actresses of the silver and small screen. What do they all have in common?

  • Jean Simmons: scouted in 1945 in London, presumably after World War II, Simmons moved to Hollywood and began an acting career that made her one of the most famous faces in the world, starring in such films as The Actress, Guys and Dolls, The Big Country, and Spartacus.
  • Grace Kelly: an acting icon, Kelly became America’s modern-day princess when she famously married Prince Ranier of Monaco, after starring in such films as High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and High Society.
  • Swoosie Kurtz: Emmy Award winner and two-time Tony Award winner from Omaha, Nebraska, who is better known on American television programs Carol and Company, Sisters, and Mike and Molly.
  • Hugh Laurie, an Oxford, England native who rose to fame as a comedy duo called Fry and Laurie, with Stephen Fry, and became a household name in America in the hit drama series, House, M.D.
  • Charlotte Rampling, British siren who starred in such films as Georgy Girl, The Damned, The Night Porter, Stardust Memories and The Verdict. She was recently in the news for her controversial comments regarding Blacks and acting.

The answer is….their fathers were all successful Olympians!

Charles Simmons: was part of the British bronze-medal winning gymnastics team in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm Sweden, and father of femme fatale, Jean Simmons.

John Kelly: 3-time gold medalist, two at the 1920 Antwerp Games in single scull and double sculls (rowing), and a gold in double sculls at the 1924 Paris Games, who was father of Princess Grace.

John B Kelly Sr
John B. Kelly

Frank Kurtz: a bronze medalist in the 1932 Los Angeles Games in the 10-meter platform dive, Kurtz was the father of Swoosie.

Frank Kurtz
Frank Kurtz and daughter, Swoosie

Ran Laurie: Like John Kelly, Ran Laurie was a rower who took gold in the coxless pairs at the 1948 London Games, whose partner on that gold-medal winning team was Jack Wilson. As mentioned above, Hugh Laurie starred in hit series, House, and coincidentally,