Fil-Am Olympic Great, Vicki Manalo Draves

Vicki Manalo Draves (Source: Filipinos in America: A Journey of Faith)

Vicki Manalo Draves (Source: Filipinos in America: A Journey of Faith)

There’s a mural in the Caballeros de Dimasalang housing project in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco that shows a young woman flying through the air, arms straight out as if she were an airplane. A few blocks away, a two-acre patch of green is named after the same woman.

The tech workers, night clubbers, tourists, neighborhood kids and the homeless who drift over from nearby skid row have no idea who she is.

Vicki Manalo Draves grew up in San Francisco's South of Market area when it still could call itself an Irish neighborhood, before it became a Filipino neighborhood and before gentrification.

Her mother was English, her father Filipino. Their marriage, even though California's anti-miscegenation laws didn't include Filipinos until later, was still a rare occurrence in the 1920s.

Her racial mixture wasn't a big deal growing up in the racially mixed neighborhood. The petite, athletic girl burned off excess energy doing cartwheels and handstands in the playground as well as basketball, softball, cheerleading and badminton in junior high.

She began swimming at age nine at the Mission's Nickel Baths, taking lessons from the Red Cross instructors. It wasn't until she was 16 that she gathered the courage to dive off the board. This was before the era of swimming clubs for youngsters, so she knew nothing about diving or swimming competitions.

At San Francisco's Fleishacker Pool, she met swimmers and divers from aquatic clubs practicing there in the summer. A Hawaiian lifeguard, Eddie Ukini, began training Vicki and her sister, showing them different dives. She was recommended to diving coach Phil Patterson.

"Because of my racial background, he could not bring me in as a member of the Fairmont Hotel and Swimming Club," she said.

Patterson convinced Vicki's parents to let her use her mother's maiden name of Taylor. Under Patterson, Vicki (Taylor) was exposed to Olympic-caliber divers such as Helen Crlenkovich and the 1936 springboard champion, Marge Gestring.

The war interrupted training, and it wasn't until she graduated from high school that she started training again and entering diving competitions. She joined her first nationals at 19.

Vicki met her future husband and coach, Lyle Draves, in 1944 at the Athens Athletic Club in Oakland. He was already coaching Olympic shoo-in Zoe Ann Olsen. With his team, she entered a meet at the Fairmont as Vicki Manalo. The organizers said Draves' other divers could enter but not "Manalo." No reason was given. Draves withdrew from the competition.

Vicki never dominated any of the meets she entered, although she usually finished in the top three. Her training and Draves' coaching paid off when she was chosen to become a member of the 1948 Olympic team representing America in London.

At the games, it was a close contest between Vicki Draves and the better-known Olsen. Before her last dive off the three-meter springboard, Vicki was shaking. "I can't do this," she remembered saying. Fellow diver Sammy Lee told her, "You came all this distance and you are going to give up? Get up there and do what you are supposed to do." She hit it -- a back 1-1/2 twist. Americans took the top three spots, and Draves won her second gold medal.

"It is overwhelming when you hear your national anthem," she recalled.

Draves was also entered in the platform competition. On her last dive, before she surfaced, the entire audience at Wembley Stadium was applauding. She was the first woman to win both the three-meter and the platform diving competitions.

1948 Olympic Games, London, England, Springboard Diving, L-R: Zoe Ann Olsen (silver), Vicki Manalo Draves (gold) and  Patsy Elsener (bronze) (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

1948 Olympic Games, London, England, Springboard Diving, L-R: Zoe Ann Olsen (silver), Vicki Manalo Draves (gold) and  Patsy Elsener (bronze) (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Vicki Manalo Draves died in 2010 at the age of 85. Ironically, the Fairmont Hotel swimming club where she was barred was turned into the Tonga Room, a mecca for tiki-club aficionados. The pool has been turned into a lagoon where, on a floating stage, brown-skinned musicians play the music of the islands.

On the weekend of October 10, 2015 a commemorative plaque was installed at the park named after Draves. The park is located next to Bessie Carmichael School, which Draves attended a young student.

The dog walkers, kids playing baseball or playing on the swings, the office workers from the high tech offices nearby – they now know who she is.

Now the question is, will the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame recognize her? She deserves to be there alongside her husband, her friend Lee and rival Olsen. 

Ed Diokno

Ed Diokno

Ed Diokno writes a blog, “Views From The Edge:” news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.

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