She faces away from the water, pressing her weight into her toes, her heels in midair. She raises her hands over her head, and begins to bounce lightly on the springboard, slowly building momentum. Throwing herself into the air, she begins to spiral in a controlled twist. Her arms propel her forward, and—a split second before she hits the water, her arms guiding her—her body straightens and hits the water with just the smallest splash.
It was the summer of 1948, at another Olympics, in another London—a city still reeling from World War II, with, as The Washington Post noted, “bomb holes where buildings used to be.” After a twelve-year hiatus during the war, the Olympics returned a humble affair—certainly far humbler than today’s monumental orchestrations. No new facilities were built for the games—they were held at a soccer stadium in northwest London—and the athletes were housed in college dormitories. Great Britain—called “the land where strict rationing is enforced” by The New York Times—could not feed the athletes, so each team brought food and the surplus was later donated to British hospitals.
It was also the year that not one, but two, Asian-American divers won gold medals. Sammy Lee won the ten-meter platform for men. Vicki Manalo Draves was the first half-Filipina-American (and the first woman) to win two diving golds—one for the three-meter springboard, the other for the ten-meter platform.
The road to the summer of ’48, however, was full of potholes. When Draves (née Manalo) and Lee were growing up, segregation was still the norm and the diving community was no exception. Because of that, finding places to train and compete could be challenging. Some pools, like Brookside Park in Pasadena where Lee used to train, named Monday their “International Day”—the day when non-whites were allowed to swim. (In an oral history of the 1948 Olympics, Lee recalled, “Even the YMCA didn’t want me to train there. The officials said something about my having to have a chest x-ray and clearance from a doctor.”)
As for Draves, she was hardly the expected bearer of this legacy. The daughter of an English mother and a Filipino father, Draves (somewhat tritely dubbed an “attractive San Francisco-born lass” by the Los Angeles Times), grew up far away from the world of diving in South of Market, San Francisco. When she was born in 1924, the intersection of Washington and Kearny Streets in South of Market had become “Manilatown.” Some 20,000 Filipino immigrants, predominantly men, lived here, working in barber shops and restaurants or as seasonal hands—on farms, in canneries, and in factories.
Draves’ parents could not have known how symbolic their daughter’s name would prove to be. In Tagalog, “Manalo” means win. “Victoria” means victory. Her name meant victory, twice over. Being poor, the Manalos could not fund their daughter’s ballet dancer dreams. Instead, at sixteen, Draves began diving. She had a crush on a boy who offered to teach her a few dives and who introduced her to her first coach, Phil Patterson.
“You just do everything she does,” Patterson told Draves during her first lesson, pointing at another female diver. Patterson refused to install Draves as a member of the Fairmont Hotel Swimming Club, where he coached, and instead made her part of his Patterson School of Swimming and Diving. “I think he was a prejudiced man,” Draves told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “It was his way of separating me from the others.” Later, behind Draves’ back, Patterson told her mother that Draves should change her last name to her mother’s maiden name, “Taylor,” if she wanted to compete.
Patterson was not Draves’ only experience with discrimination in the diving community. Once, when she performed at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, her father came to see her dive and got turned away at the door. Draves’ coach had to persuade the club to let him in. “If I had known that at the time, I would never have dived for them,” Draves said in the oral history.
Another time, Lyle Draves, Vicki’s coach and later husband, tried to enter her into a Fairmont Hotel meet. The athletic committee told him that he could enter his other divers, like Zoe Ann Olsen—who would win the silver medal in the three-meter springboard in 1948—but not Draves herself. “They would not give me a reason,” Lyle said in an interview for the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. He entered Draves in the competition anyways (though she didn’t end up competing). He said, “When the athletic committee told me that they would tell me who to enter, I quit.”
It had taken Draves years to get to this point: diving the final dive in the women’s three-meter springboard competition. Her curly brown hair was pinned back, and she wore her old Mavs suit—the suit required for the team. (It was black with a stars-and-stripes patch sewn on.) The pool was below her, and the platform above her—a promise of the next event. Rows upon rows of bleachers encircled the pool. A panel of judges sat at their table on one side watching her set up for the dive. Draves was one dive away from her first gold medal, but she had never been less certain of her victory than at that moment. She hadn’t been landing the dive in practice. Moments before, standing with Sammy Lee, a close friend, she said, “Oh, Sam, what am I going to do? This is the dive I have to get.” He replied, “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.”
And that is how the “108-pounder” Draves found herself ten feet above the water, preparing to dive her back 1½ layout in the 1948 Olympics. A particularly hard dive to accomplish because the diver cannot see where she is going, a back 1½ layout starts with the diver facing the board and looking away from the water. The diver’s body is completely straight and rigid in the air. The diver flips 1.5 times, which rotates her body so that she enters the water headfirst. “You actually know when you are taking off from the board whether it is going to be a good dive or not,” Draves said in an interview with the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles.
“I sort of sailed through it, and I knew I hit it when I was under water and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, thank you, God,’” she said. “I didn’t know where it came from.”
She wore a USA sweatshirt over her swimsuit to accept her gold medal. It was the first gold medal out of two—Victoria Manalo Draves’ double victory.
To celebrate, she and Lyle met with her mother’s family. Her aunt and uncle took the couple to dinner at the Continental Hotel. Ravenous, Draves ate the food placed in front of her without asking what it was. “It was horse meat,” she told the Amateur Athletic Foundation, “because steak was so hard to get at the whole country was on rations. It tasted fine to me.”