Becoming Victoria

Olympic gold medalist Victoria Manalo Draves (left). Actress and producer Georgina Tolentino (Photos courtesy of Icarus Film Studios)

I first learned of Victoria Manalo Draves when I read her obituary in the New York Times in 2010. The person who handed me the newspaper in a restaurant said, “Wow, you look just like this woman,” and walked away.

I did see the resemblance. She was half-Filipino and English. I was Filipino with a half-Portuguese mother and Italian-Spanish-Native American father. 

Victoria was born and raised in San Francisco at a time when her parents couldn’t walk together in public. She grew up when pools were “whites only” facilities and had one dedicated day a month for people of “color” (this also meant immigrants, including Jewish and Italians). This allowed “internationals” to swim before the pool was sanitized for use the next day. 

Victoria Manalo Draves was the first Filipino American woman to win two gold medals in diving, at the 1948 Olympics in London. She faced a lot of racial prejudice along the way. 

I decided to produce an independent narrative film about Victoria and also play her as my passion for telling her story grew.

I grew up watching IFC, the Sundance Channel and loving film. I worked for three companies in LA—Maybach and Cunningham, LET Films and Divya Creative while taking acting classes and auditioning during lunch breaks. Honestly, I got tired of the extremely limiting roles available for women: “cynical hottie #2” or “girl having affair.” I was also tired of being told, “Well, you’re not Asian enough.”

However, I believe that a beautiful shift is happening in independent filmmaking, television and media, which women like Vicki had fought for in their fields. 

So, with Brittany del Soldato, Reggie Elzey and Erica Schweitzer and what today is Icarus Film Studios, I started the process of making Vicki’s film by interviewing her husband, Lyle Draves, who also was her coach. 

When I don’t want to get up at 8 a.m. to dive because I just stayed up working or have a cold, I try to remember that when Vicki first dove at the Fairmont Club, they did not let her in until she changed her name to Taylor.

I also got in touch with Sammy Lee, coach of diving star Greg Louganis, who was himself a legendary Olympic diver and Korean American icon. Jack Lavery, her friend who introduced her to diving at Fleishhacker saltwater pool in the 1930s in San Francisco, was also helpful. Then Connie, Victoria’s twin sister, shared great stories, like when they sent the same Christmas card to each other by accident.  

Sammy Lee recalled that when Vicki first joined the team at the Oakland Athletics they all wanted to push her into the pool as a hazing prank. But she found out about it, so she covered herself in baby oil. This made everyone else fall into the pool, making everyone laugh and see what a funny person she was. I believe her sunny attitude enabled her to endure the obstacles thrown in her way.

Vicki’s spirit was alive through these people, who are already in their nineties, and yet still joke and tell stories about her, keeping her memory alive. There is an energy and light in their eyes that can’t be explained.  Jack Lavery started laughing, held my hand and said, “Well you have Vicki’s smile –  so that’s good.” I was so moved. 

When we drove Jack to Sammy Lee’s house, they hugged as old friends, and we became invisible, which made me laugh. Jack had planted a “Sammy Lee plant” in his garden, and after six years finally was able to give it to Sammy. They began talking as if they were back in their twenties. We just watched in amusement, happy to give them that moment.

I have gotten to know Victoria through these friends of hers. The first time I saw a video of her I started crying because she was no longer a photo. I felt like I met her in that moment, watching her smiling and winning. I knew what that moment of victory felt like for her, when losing her dad drove her to win in his honor. I really want people to recognize that Vicki fought for her name and her family’s honor. I only want to do the same.

Preparing for the role has been a commitment. I got a trainer who is amazing and helped me through my back injury, with inversions, building stamina to train the muscles for diving and understanding a diet that improves performance. I go to diving class twice a week in Santa Monica, or in Pasadena, and recently started taking private sessions. I also attend ballet class once or twice a week. I’ve begun understanding diving as an “aerial” sport.

When I don’t want to get up at 8 a.m. to dive because I just stayed up working or have a cold, I try to remember that when Vicki first dove at the Fairmont Club, they did not let her in until she changed her name to Taylor, her mother’s English maiden name. She had a special club where she was the only member. In one competition her father wasn’t allowed into the facility to watch her; so she refused to dive until they let him in. “Manalo” in Tagalog means to win, an apt name for a fighter.

I didn’t understand why she dove until I started diving. She, like me, had a fear of heights and drowning, ironic for a woman who won gold in 10m and 3m springboard. She dove for her father, for her mother, for the community that accepted her as an equal in sports. She dove for her friends who faced Japanese internment, for women who were being held back. She dove for her English aunt who married a Filipino and faced threats at work because her marriage was deemed “disgusting and wrong” and who was later found dead in an elevator shaft. She dove not for what America was, but for what it could and should become. 

I, too, was born and raised in San Francisco, and I am proud because it is a city full of activists and grassroots movements working to change society for the better. We fight for the rights and opportunities we have and for Vicki’s story to be told.

Join me in telling the story of Victoria Manalo Draves. Pledges start at $1, and contributions help us meet our goal of $18,000. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding all or nothing platform; if we don’t meet our goal you get your money back. So help us build the momentum for a story that needs to be told by being a backer and encouraging your friends to do so.

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Georgina Tolentino

Georgina Tolentino

Georgina Tolentino can be reached at