Filipino-American Vicki Draves Made Olympic History
San Francisco is an old, iron safe filled with gold, glory, disaster, and secrets. SFCentric History is a new column, by SF writer V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi, that digs in the vaults of local history and shares the sensational people, places, and things that rocked San Francisco. This time it’s all about Vicki Draves
We write on history to keep it alive, so it doesn’t fade away, or get lost among louder voices. If we don’t, how will people know that greatness that existed? The story of Vicki Manalo Draves fits into this narrative perfectly–a 1948 Olympic gold-medal winning athlete from San Francisco who has yet to be inducted to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. An example of female, Asian, Filipino, human excellence, whose story has been buried under those of others. In honor of October having been Filipino Heritage Month, and the amazing feat of a 23-year-old who helped the U.S. take all medals in women’s diving at the Games, this week’s SFCentric History is going to help tell that story.
Victoria “Vicki” Manalo Draves was born in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco, on December 31, 1924, to a chef, houseboy, and musician Filipino father (Teofilo Manalo) and English maid mother (Gertrude Taylor). Perhaps foreshadowing her success and double-gold medal future, her name literally means “victory win” (Manalo is “win” in Tagalog). Victoria’s parents met while Gertrude was in the city visiting a sister, who also worked as a maid at the Saint Francis Hotel and had married a Filipino man.
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Vicki’s parents and married in SF, during a time when interracial marriages weren’t encouraged or accepted, and Asians faced rampant discrimination. In SoMa, the Filipino population was growing, and the Manalo family would attend cultural events in the neighborhood. Still, Vicki was subjected to racism from a young age. In the 1940s, in San Francisco, swimming pools were designated as being “white only.” For one day a month, “internationals” were allowed to patronize these facilities. After people of color finishing swimming, the pools were drained and cleaned. These were the pools that Vicki Manalo would first swim in as a young girl.
She had wanted to be a ballerina, but the Manalo family couldn’t afford lessons. However, Vicki undoubtedly would use the same grace and form seen in ballerinas and put it into diving. She would swim at the saltwater Fleishhacker Pool, and took free swimming lessons at the Mission Red Cross. Soon, a teenage Manalo, who attended Commerce High School at the time, was discovered by Phil Patterson, coach of the Fairmont Hotel Swimming and Diving Club. At the age of 17, she went to join, but was rejected due to her Filipino last name. Patterson started a new club for Manalo, the Patterson School of Swimming and Diving, but still said she couldn’t compete unless she used her mother’s maiden name, Taylor. For a time, Vicki also swam at Charlie Sava’s Crystal Plunge pool in North Beach.
In 1943, at the age of 19, Vicki met Lyle Draves. The diving coach worked at the Athens Athletic Club in Oakland, and began training Manalo, who reclaimed her last name. He would also coach two other Olympic gold medalists, Pat McCormick and Sue Gossick, and helped take home 12 medals at Olympic Games. Vicki and Lyle Draves got married in 1946, moved to Pasadena, and had four children, who were all divers. Coached by Lyle, Vicki won five United States Championships from 1946 to 1948. This was the result of six hours of training per day, where Vicki could do over 100 dives, even while attending San Francisco Junior College (today’s City College).
But this was only the beginning. The greatest test of all top athletes was next–the 1948 Summer Olympics. It was the first Olympic Games in 12 years, and the first since the end of World War II. Vicki Manalo Draves arrived in London, and proceeded to break records–and barriers.
The “23-year-old Pasadena housewife,” as the San Bernardino Sun referred to the champ, proceeded to do the following:
- Became the first woman to win three-meter springboard and ten-meter platform gold medals.
- Became the first double winner of the 1948 Olympics
- Allowed the complete sweep of the United States in the women’s diving titles.
- Became the only American to win two individual gold medals at the 1948 Olympics
- Was the first Asian-American to win a gold medal at the Olympics (Korean-American Sammy Lee would win a gold medal two days later)
- She and Sammy, the men’s platform winner, were the first divers of Asian descent to win Olympic gold medals.
- Was the first Asian-American to medal at an Olympics Game
- Was the first American woman to win two Olympic gold medals in diving
- Was the first woman to win two gold medals in an Olympic game
- Was the first Asian-American woman to medal at an Olympics
- Was the first Asian-American woman to win gold medals at the Olympics
- Was the first Filipino to win a gold medal
- Was the only woman ever to do the cutaway two-and-one-half somersault
After the Olympics, Vicki went professional, and started a tour performing in various water shows and public exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Philippines. She went to Manila in February of 1949 to “put on six diving exhibitions.” When Manalo Draves went to join the L.A. Athletic Club, this time the Olympian wasn’t rejected. The Draves even appeared in a 1955 documentary film about Palm Desert.
Vicki continued to be honored over the years. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969. At the 2002 Filipino American National Historical Society Conference, the athlete was presented with an award. 2005 saw Draves selected as the Most Outstanding Alumnus of City College of San Francisco.
But the people of San Francisco, including those in the Filipino and Filipino-American community, felt that a permanent way to honor the city’s gold medalist was well deserved. After petitioning to have the Gene Friend Recreation Center renamed in her name, in 2005, it was unanimously voted that a new park be named in Victoria Manalo Draves honor. Located at 16 Sherman Street, four blocks from where Manalo was born, and standing where her alma mater Franklin Elementary School once did, Victoria Manalo Draves Park opened in 2006 as the only park named after a Pinay in the U.S.
On April 11, 2010, Vicki died of complications of pancreatic cancer, in Palm Springs, California.
Although she was nominated in 2015, she still hasn’t been inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. She deserves to be there, because of her talent, her achievements, and because she did it all, without the aid of anything but her drive, and with no asterisk by her name. Her feats, her perseverance in the face of adversity, and her spirit however, will always outshine any honor Victoria Manalo Draves does or doesn’t get.