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.

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ingrid-engel-kraemer-carries-the-unified-german-teams-olympic-banner-at-1964-tokyo-olympics_the-olympic-century-the-xviii-olympiad
Ingrid Engel Kraemer carries the unified German Team’s Olympic Banner at 1964 Tokyo Olympics, from the book, The Olympic Century The XVIII Olympiad

Before the 1960 Rome Olympics, very few people knew who Ingrid Krämer was. After her victories in the women’s 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform diving competitions in Rome, she was the face of German sport. According to Der Spiegel in an article in 1964, the newly emerged blonde superstar, Krämer, was inundated by requests for marriage.

Krämer, who eventually accepted a proposal by weightlifter, Hein Engel, proved she was no fluke. In fact, she proved to be the most dominant female diver in the world, by talking gold in springboard and platform by double digit points over her second place competitors at the 1962 European Championships. So when the 1964 Olympics began, Engel-Krämer was a frontrunner.

In the 3-meter springboard competition, Engel-Krämer’s competition were two Americans named Jeanne Collier and Patsy Willard, who aimed to restore glory to the United States and prevent the East German Engel-Krämer from repeating her gold medal victory in Rome. But Engel-Krämer was dominant in the springboard again, taking gold handily.

According to the book, Olympic Games 1964 Innsbruck – Tokyo, edited in German by Harald Lechenperg, Engel-Krämer’s advantage was precision.

People say of the former Olympic victor, Mrs. Engel, that she has no longer possesses the elegance she used to have. Well, her strongest point was never elegance, but sureness. Ingrid Engel dives with a precision of movements which is lacking in everyone else. She makes no mistakes. It is easy to slip up on springboard diving when the body, as if touched by magic, turns, twists and moves about its own axis.

Dresden, Heirat Ingrid Krämer, Hein Engel
Ingrid Kraemer and Heins Engel

Collier told me that if not for a single dive, she could have challenged Engel-Krämer for gold at the Tokyo Olympcis. Collier’s first of the competition’s ten dives was horrible, scoring a horrible 4.5 of ten. But her final two dives, which had high degrees of difficulty, allowed her to pass her teammate to win gold. “Ingrid Kraemer was a beautiful diver,” Collier told me, “and deserved to win. She was the most consistent.”

By taking gold in the springboard, Engel-Krämer would reach the heights of famed diver Pat McCormick, who was then the only woman to have won gold medals in both springboard and platform in two consecutive Olympics. But Lesley Bush of America would have none of that. While the competition was close, Engel-Krämer would take silver.

According to Lechenperg, Bush was relatively unknown, someone who had only taken up platform diving three years prior to the Olympics. But she executed on her plan. “Leslie Bush knows the recipe for success: safety first. She takes the lead during the first compulsory dives. Later on she lets go of it. The “iron” Ingrid now for the first time shows her nerves. She risks everything with one dive, but the judges only give her 16.80 points. Leslie Bush has won.”

British journalist, Christopher Brasher, wrote in his book, A Diary of the XVIIIth Olympiad, that Engel-Krämer may have been a reluctant participant in the Olympics, which could have affected her performance.

I have heard that she didn’t really want to come to Tokyo. She was married a year ago to one of East Germany’s best weightlifters, Heinrich Engel. They are both students at University and the combination of being a Hausfrau and a student doesn’t leave her much time for training. But east of the iron curtain it is only too easy for the authorities to put some gentle pressure on a reluctant athlete. With many of the necessities of life, to say nothing of the luxuries, in short supply, the stars of sport are often given preferential treatment – so it pays to keep on competing.

ingrid-engel-kraemer-tokyo1964_xviii-olympiad-tokyo-1964_asahi-shinbun
Ingrid Engel Kraemer Tokyo1964, from the book,XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun

Der Spiegel offered another explanation why Engel-Krämer was not able to repeat her gold-medal ways in the platform dive – she was a bit too curvaceous. Here is a Google translation of part of that article:

Thus the German, as the first jumper in the world of the double-screw somersaults – a one-and-a-half-turn about the longitudinal axis of the body, with a simultaneous twisting of the body and its transverse axis – succeeded just as accurately as an ordinary head-jump. A 10-meter jump case takes at most 2.1 seconds, a jump from the three-meter board even less. Ingrid Engel-Krämer made her work very quickly.

In Tokyo, Ingrid Engel-Krämer was no longer able to finish her turn so early. A disadvantage that cannot be compensated by training and energy in the long term is the following: the best in the world does not have the ideal figure for her sport. Ingrid Engel-Krämer is only 1.58 meters tall, but weighs 56 kilograms and tends to fullness. “She is as wide as high,” her first coach mocked.

Still, three golds out of four makes Engel-Krämer one of the greatest divers of the 20th century. Despite references to her looks and her moniker, the Doll from Dresden, Engel-Krämer jumped hundreds of times every week, climbing the tower steps 10-meters, smacking into the water painfully, pausing about three minutes and doing that again, over and over. As the Der Spiegel article mentioned regarding her 500 jumps a week, Engel-Krämer become so good that legendary American diving Olympic champion and coach, Sammy Lee admitted that “On a bad day, she’s still good.”

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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.”

Dibiasi Webster and Gompf_Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency
On the Medal Stand at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: Klaus Dibiasi (Italy) Bob Webster (USA), Tom Gompf (USA)_from the book Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo News Agency

It’s an oft-told tale – the aimless youth meets the experienced veteran who sees the potential the youth does not see.

Bob Webster was one such youth growing up in California in the 1950s. While Webster would accomplish the astonishing – winning gold medals in the 10-meter platform dive competition in two consecutive Olympics – he had no idea he had a career in diving in high school….until he met Sammy Lee.

“I was a gymnast growing up in the local YMCA, but when the gymnastics coach left town to take another job, we were left hanging,” Webster told me, referring to his time at Santa Ana High School. “That summer of my sophomore year, we went to the community pool and did somersaults into the water.” Webster explained that they were going to the pool to self-train themselves in gymnastics, but in essence, that is how he got his start in diving.

Bob Webster profile
Click on image to see footage of Webster diving at the Tokyo Olympics.

Webster graduated from high school and stayed local by going to Santa Ana Junior College, which did not even have a pool. More importantly though was what Santa Ana Junior College had very nearby – Sammy Lee. “Of all people, who sets up his practice there in Santa Ana? Dr. Sammy Lee! How lucky am I?”

Webster explained that one of his diving buddies actually walked into Dr. Lee’s office, and said something to the effect of – we got this kid who went to Santa Ana High School and you have to check him out. “How many times has he heard that,” thought Webster. But Webster did indeed set up a time to meet Dr. Lee, who was at this time, one of the most renown American Olympians of his time – a US Army medical doctor who had won gold in the 10-meter platform dive in 1948 (London) and 1952 (Helsinki).

Sammy Lee card

“When I went to meet Sammy, I was a nervous wreck,” said Webster. “He watched me dive, and he said, ‘I think you can win in the Olympic Games.’ I didn’t have any goals, but Sammy gave me the greatest gift – he lit the fire in my belly. He got me to believe in myself. ‘Bob I will be glad to train you,’ he told me. ‘We can do it at my home.'”

In fact, Webster trained off of a diving board above a sand pit, set up in Dr. Lee’s backyard. “That is how it started. He told me, ‘here is what I expect from you. You have to focus on this. And I will coach you.’ He didn’t charge me. He got me to believe in myself.”

Webster remembered Dr. Lee as a taskmaster, which is exactly what he needed. “I had some talent and desire, and Sammy drew it out of me. He was my idol, but we also called him the little general. ‘Do this. Do that,’ he’d say. But I’d do everything he told me to do. He must have made me do dives over and over until it was right. But he also had a great sense of humor. When I was training for the 1960 games in Rome, if I missed a dive, he’d sing Arriverderci Rome.”

Said Dr. Lee of Webster, “Diving-wise, he was the greatest competitor I’ve ever coached. He really held up under competition, as both of his Olympic medals were by narrow margins. I told him early on that he could be an Olympic champion and Bob finally said, ‘If you’re serious, I’m serious.’ I wrote to the University of Michigan and told them I had the

Frank Gorman and Sammy Lee at the 1964 Olympic TrialsFrank Gorman and Sammy Lee at the 1964 Olympic Trials
Frank Gorman and Sammy Lee at the 1964 Olympic Trials

“I was 10 years old when Sammy won his first and second Olympic medals at the 1948 Games,” Frank Gorman of diving legend, Sammy Lee. “We were not able to view his triumphs on television in those days but the newspapers were full of good coverage  and I thought that he was the greatest competitor in London.”

Gorman, who won silver in the 3-meter diving competition in Tokyo, would often go as a younger, less known diver to competitions without the support of a coach. If Sammy Lee was there, he always lent a hand. “I finally got to meet Sammy at the USA National Diving Championships in the early 1950s at Yale University. I might have been the youngest competitor and was there without a coach. During the workout I met Sammy and before long he was helping me with some of my dives. I was thrilled to have the World Champ watching me. Sammy was low-key, patient and explained clearly what I should do to improve my efforts. In future years I frequently showed up at meets without a coach and Sammy was always there for me.”

Søren Svejstrup also competed as a diver at the Tokyo Games, had a very similar interaction with Lee. “I went to a meet in Los Angeles in 1960,” wrote Svjestrup. “I was all alone, and still not experienced in diving meets. And I did not know how to do a good twisting dive from the 10 meter platform. The dive I executed was a handstand, fall over where I end up diving feet first after a half salto. I’m sure no one had seen such a dive in the US because everybody laughed, but not Sammy. He told everybody that it was a classic European dive and he would give it a high mark. And if anybody wanted to try the same dive, he would like to see it. Nobody did. At the meet, Sammy scored me a ten. I was grateful, and of course I lost my heart to Sammy forever.”

Sammy Lee and Soren Svejstrup
Sammy Lee and Soren Svejstrup

Dr. Sammy Lee, a medical MD who served with the US Army Medical Corps in Korea, winner of the James E Sullivan Award as the most outstanding athlete in the United States in 1953, and a repeat champion in the 10 meter platform dive, winning gold in London in 1948, and Helsinki in 1952. In addition to countless stories of helping divers all over the world, he coached Olympic divers Pat McCormick, Bob Webster, and Greg Louganis. August 1 is Dr. Sammy Lee’s birthday! And on this day