HomeAsian Americans9 AAPI Summer Olympians who Paved the Way

9 AAPI Summer Olympians who Paved the Way

By Briana Lim, AsAmNews Intern

The Tokyo Summer Olympics kicks off on Friday, an attempt at normalcy, spirit, and international camaraderie even as Covid-19 continues to spread.

It will also be an opportunity for AAPI athletes to shine, a special moment given the past year’s spike in anti-Asian crimes. We’ll be rooting for AAPI gymnasts Sunisa Lee and Yul Moldauer, karate champion Sakura Kokumai, and record-breaking swimmer Torri Huske, among others.

These AAPI Olympians serve as beacons of bravery and fortitude, inspiring us during a tumultuous time of sickness, pain, and hate. They also follow in the footsteps of AAPI athletes who paved the way before them. Here’s a look back at nine trailblazing AAPI summer Olympians.

Victoria Manalo Draves (1924-2010)

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 1948, Victoria “Vicki” Manalo Draves broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first Asian American to win Olympic gold medals. However, her path to victory wasn’t easy. Draves was born in 1924 to a Filipino father and English mother. She began diving at age 16, but was barred from her local diving club because of her Filipino last name, Manalo. In order to compete, she adopted her mother’s maiden name, Taylor. In 1944, fellow diver and friend Sammy Lee introduced her to coach Lyle Draves, who she began training with and later married. Draves won five U.S. diving championships before heading to London for the 1948 Olympics. On top of becoming the first Asian American to win gold at the Olympics, she also became the first woman to win gold in both the springboard and 10-meter platform events. Throughout her life, she supported her community, raising money for City of Hope National Medical Center and advocating for Filipino immigrants. According to the New York Times, “Victoria” means “victory,” and “manalo” means “win,” a fitting name for a champion.

Sammy Lee (1920-2016)

File:Sammy Lee 1952.jpg
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Two days after Vicki Manalo Draves became the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal, Sammy Lee did the same. Born to Korean immigrant parents in California, Lee faced discriminatory setbacks. His community’s public pool prohibited non-White children from swimming on all days except Wednesday. Lee improvised by diving into a dirt pit filled with sand. While attending Occidental College, Lee secured and defended National Champion titles. His Olympic debut was delayed by World War II, during which he became a lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps. He became the first diver to win consecutive Olympic golds for platform diving in 1948 and 1952. Aside from being a top diver, well respected coach, and army doctor, Lee also served as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department and used his platform to speak out against racism. According to the LA Times, when Lee was repeatedly asked to dive for Korea in the Olympics, Lee replied: “I was born an American. I think like an American. Only my face is Korean.”

Tommy Kono (1930-2016)

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Tamio “Tommy” Kono was born in Sacramento to a Japanese American family. In 1942, his family was sent to Tule Lake Internment Camp because of their Japanese ancestry. There, the desert air helped Kono overcome his asthma, and he was introduced to weightlifting. Though he was drafted into the army in 1950, he was held back from the Korean War because of his Olympic potential. Kono won gold at the 1952 Olympics as a lightweight, gold at the 1956 Olympics as a light-heavyweight, and silver in the 1960 Olympics as a middleweight. Kono’s super power was being able to adjust his bodyweight class without losing lifting potential. Remarkably, he remains the only weightlifter to win Olympic medals in three different weight classes, according to the Washington Post. Over the course of his career, Kono racked up a whopping 26 world records across four weight classes, according to the New York Times. In addition to weightlifting, Kono was also an accomplished body builder, holding Mr. World and Mr. Universe titles. Kono remained involved in weightlifting throughout his life, coaching, refereeing, and writing about weightlifting technique. Kono professed, “Successful weightlifting is not in the body. It’s in the mind…You can lift as much as you believe you can.”

Harold Sakata (1920-1982)

Toshiyuki “Harold” Sakata was born in Hawaii in 1920. At 18, he weighed only 113 pounds, and reportedly began weightlifting to build mass. According to UPI archives, Sakata won a silver medal in the 181-pound weightlifting class at the 1948 Olympics after tying for first. He was reportedly given silver because he was a pound heavier than his opponent. Later, Sakata launched a prolific career in professional wrestling, going by the name, “Tosh Togo,” derived from his name “Toshiyuki” and the Japanese general “Togo.” However, Sakata is most known for his later work in entertainment; namely, his role as the villain “Oddjob” in the James Bond film Goldfinger. According to the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences, Sakata was known to have a gregarious personality, leading a British reporter to write the epitaph: “He flits about the world so fast and so often that though he makes many friends in many places he is rooted to none. What a pity! This strong man who could kill with one blow of the hand has so much friendship in that hand to offer.”

Ford Konno (1933 – )

File:Ford Konno 1952.jpg
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Ford Hiroshi Konno is a Japanese American swimmer from Hawaii. Konno showed his talents early on, setting a long-standing world record for the 800m freestyle soon after graduating high school. He continued swimming on scholarship at Ohio State University, where he won multiple NCAA and AAU championships and set world records in 200m and 400m freestyle events, according to Hickok Sports. At the 1952 Olympics, Konno won gold in the 1500m freestyle and the 4x200m Freestyle relay events, and silver in the 400m freestyle. At the 1956 Olympics, Konno served as co-captain and added a second silver medal from the 4x200m freestyle relay to his collection. He later married Olympic teammate and childhood sweetheart, Evelyn Kawamoto, and settled down as a coach and teacher in Hawaii.

Evelyn Kawamoto (1933-2017)

File:Evelyn Kawamoto 1952.jpg
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Evelyn Kawamoto, like her husband Ford Konno, grew up swimming in Hawaii. According to Swimming World Magazine, she began swimming at the age of 9, and by age 14, she was making waves in the swimming world. She broke numerous local records and went on to compete at the 1948 Olympic Trials. A year later, she broke the U.S. record in the women’s 300m individual medley and 200m breaststroke on the same day, and subsequently became the National Champion in both events. At the 1950 Women’s Nationals, Kawamoto tied for first with Marge Hulton in the 200m breaststroke. Instead of awarding each swimmer with gold, the swimmers were given uniquely crafted half-gold, half-silver medals. At the 1952 Olympics, she won two bronze medals for the 400m freestyle and 400 freestyle relay. She was the only American woman to win an individual medal in swimming that year. After a successful swimming career, Kawamoto became an elementary school teacher and settled down with Ford Konno.

Yoshinobu “Yoshi” Oyakawa (1933 – )

File:Yoshi Oyakawa at the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial near Kaimana Beach.jpg
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Yoshi Oyakawa is a two-time Olympic swimmer and former world record holder. Growing up in Hawaii, Oyakawa grew up swimming. He found much success at Ohio State University, winning six Big Ten, seven NCAA, and nine NAAU championships. At the 1952 Summer Olympics, Oyakawa won gold in the 100-meter backstroke. According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, he is considered one of the last, great swimmers who used the “straight-arm-pull” backstroke technique, and holds the world record for it. He returned to the Olympics in 1956 and co-captained the swim team with Ford Konno. In addition to representing the country abroad, Oyakawa served it as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. After a long career of swimming and 27 FINA Masters world records to his name, Oyakawa devoted himself to coaching.

Amy Chow (1978-)

In 1996, Amy Chow became the first Asian American woman to win an Olympic medal in gymnastics. She was part of the famous Magnificent Seven — the first U.S. women’s gymnastics team to win gold at the Olympics. Chow also received a bronze medal in 2000 as part of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, as well as an individual silver for the uneven bars. She was known for performing difficult skills with apparent ease, and has two gymnastics skills named after her, the “Chow/Khorkina” and the “Chow II.” According to a fellowship biography, since retiring from gymnastics, Chow graduated from Stanford University’s undergraduate and medical schools, and is a licensed physician and surgeon. She now runs a private practice with her husband in Northern California.

Nathan Adrian (1988 – )

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Nathan Adrian is an accomplished swimmer with a total of eight Olympic medals under his belt—five golds, one silver, and two bronzes. Adrian, whose mother is from Hong Kong, was born in Washington in 1988. According to Adrian’s personal website, he began swimming at the age of 5, following in the footsteps of his older brother and sister. Adrian’s talent was evident since his high school years, when he broke countless school and state records, then went on to UC Berkeley and did the same. He made his first Olympic team in 2008 and won a gold medal as a preliminary swimmer. At the 2012 London Olympics, Adrian won gold in the 100 freestyle, as well as silver and gold on the relay teams. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Adrian served as the team’s co-captain, and won two gold and two bronze medals. He has the distinction of receiving medals in every event he has swum at the Olympics. In 2018, Adrian married his long time girlfriend. Months later, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which motivated him to become an advocate for men’s health issues. In June, Adrian narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which would have been his fourth Olympic games.

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