Remembering 1st Fil-Am to win Olympic gold
SAN FRANCISCO – Over a hundred kababayans gathered at the two-acre park on the corner of Folsom and Sherman Streets in San Francisco last Sunday, to honor a Filipina who survived discrimination to be one of the most celebrated athletes in the world—champion diver Victoria Manalo-Draves.
“Not only was she the first Asian-American woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics,” Rudy Asercion, executive director of Westbay Pilipino Multi-Service Center, organizer of the event, said. “She was the first woman in the entire world who won two gold medals in the Olympics.”
Vicki, as she was fondly called, was born to a Filipino father and an English mother in 1924. She grew up in the South of Market in San Francisco. She began to take swimming lessons when she was 10. But her family struggled to pay for it.
Vicki was 17 when she wanted to join the Fairmont Hotel Swimming and Diving Club in San Francisco. But she was reportedly denied because of her Filipino name.
“A lot of the swimming pools would not let minority kids swim in the swimming pools,” Fred Basconcillo, Vicki’s friend and neighbor, shared. “In the beginning, she couldn’t swim as Vicki Manalo and be able to get in the prestigious swimming meets. She had to use her mother’s maiden name—Vicki Taylor.”
Despite the racial prejudice against her, Vicki’s skills as a diver could not be denied. She won five U.S. diving championships before she competed in the 1948 Olympics. She made history as the first women to win springboard and platform gold medals in the same Olympics.
“From hearing her story, of how she fought adversity and discrimination, I think it’s important, as a Filipino-American to have heroes like her,” Ahnileen Martinez, multi-cultural outreach director for AARP, one of the sponsors of the event, said.
In 2006, San Francisco officials named a park in honor of Vicki. And it was there last Sunday, when fellow Filipinos honored her with a plaque that immortalized her contributions—not just to sports, but to the community as well.
The project was initiated by the Filipino students who attend Westbay’s afterschool program.
”This is an example of how stories of those who came before them inspire young children,” Deputy Consul Jaime Ascalon of the Philippine Consulate said.
Victoria Manalo Draves was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale in 1969. She passed away in April 2010 at the age of 85 after a bout with cancer. She is survived by her husband and her four sons.