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Year
1948
Month Day
August 06

Vicki Draves and Sammy Lee become the first Asian Americans to win an Olympic gold medal for the U.S.

On August 6, 1948, American diver Vicki Draves wins gold at the London Olympics. Two days later, her good friend and fellow diver Sammy Lee takes gold as well, making them the first Asian Americans to win Olympic gold medals for the United States.

Draves was the daughter of an English maid and a Filipino chef and musician, while Lee’s parents were of Korean descent and ran what he called “a little chop suey restaurant.” Both grew up in California, where public pools were whites-only and non-whites were only allowed to swim for a brief period one day a week. When he couldn’t use the pool, Lee practiced diving by jumping into a pit full of sand. Draves (nee Manalo) hoped to join the Fairmont Hotel Swimming and Diving Club but was barred due to her race—she eventually joined another club started by the Fairmont’s coach, going by Vicki Taylor to hide her racial identity. Despite these obstacles, Lee and Draves rose to the top of the American diving scene, becoming friends in the process. It was Lee who introduced Vicki to Lyle Draves, who became her coach and husband.

Draves recounted turning to Lee and telling him “I can’t do this, Sammy” before her gold-medal dive, to which he responded, “Get up there and do what you are supposed to do.” Getting to the board turned out to be the hard part, as she later remembered: “I sort of sailed through it, and I knew I hit it when I was underwater and I thought, 'Oh boy, thank you, God.’” Lee’s win two days later was his first of two Olympic golds: four years later, he took gold in Helsinki, becoming the first man to win consecutive gold medals for platform diving. Weightlifter Tommy Kono and swimmers Yoshinobu Oyakawa and Ford Konno all won gold as well in 1952, and in the decades that followed many more Asian Americans would make headlines at the Olympics, including Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi and Apolo Ohno.

READ MORE: Asian American Milestones: A Timeline

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