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A Fast Trip to the Top

Jesse Vassallo

By Michelle D. Healy

Competitive swimming is booming in Puerto Rico and Jesse Vassallo is the reason.

Vassallo, now residing in Miami with his mother and two younger brothers, began his swimming career with Club Deportivo de Ponce in his native Puerto Rico, where he lived until he was 11. Now, he is the most successful swimmer ever from that Caribbean island.

The third and most acclaimed in a family of five swimming sons. Vassallo first gained U.S. recognition as a member of the Mission Viejo Nadadores when he captured the 400-meter individual medley in 4:28.34 at the 1976 Outdoor Championships only days after his 15th birthday. In the five years since. Vassallo has established a reputation with his exceptional performances in the IMs and the brothers needed.

Vassallo's father--who was hit by a car and killed a few years ago when crossing a Miami street--decided to move his family to Florida from Ponce, the largest city in southern Puerto Rico, for two reasons: He wanted to provide his sons with an opportunity to become fluent in English, and he was looking for a swim club that would develop their aquatic skills. At that time Puerto Rico did not provide the competition that the rapidly improving Vassallo brothers needed

"My father wanted us to learn to speak English well. He chose Miami because we had other family and friends there. He was also looking for a strong swim club. Swimming is great, but sometimes I feel like all the time I spend in the water not speaking at all holds me back as far as perfecting my English." Vassallo, who speaks clearly and with only a slight accent says.

After moving to the States, the Vassallos joined the Miami Hurricanes Swim Club. The two youngest brothers. Vincent, now 17, and Salvador, 12, are still members of the Hurricanes and are coached by Bill Diaz. Jesse's mentor at the University of Miami.

A couple of years after the family settled in Miami, Jesse enrolled at the Jack Nelson Swim Camp for a summer. Jesse's progress there convinced his father that the up-and-coming swimmer needed a more ambitious program.

Simultaneously, Mission Viejo began to produce the steady stream of champion that has been coming out of the Southern California-based club since the early 1970s. After seeing and hearing about Nadadore swimmers. Vassallo's father decided to uproot his family once more and to head for California, where his sons could swim with Mission Viejo coach Mark Schubert.

Under Schubert's cautious guidance, Jesse improved enough in his first year to qualify in the spring of 1976 for the first Short Course nationals at Long Beach's Belmont Plaza. The swimming world had only six months to prepare itself after the diminutive ninth-grader's first performance in a major competition at the end of the following summer, Vassallo swam to his first national championship at Philadelphia's Kelly Pool.

"By deciding to move the family to Mission Viejo, my father gave us the chance to become better swimmers. It's because of him that I improved so fast. Then his death came and we all decided to make ourselves better swimmers because he wanted that. That's been our inspiration." Vassallo says.

Swimming is the favorite sport of all the Vassallos. In fact, Jesse is the second member of the family to receive a scholarship for his prowess in the water: Victor, who also enjoyed some success as a backstroker, received one from the University of Texas.

For the recently retired Victor, sibling rivalry with Jesse has never been intense. Even when the brothers were on opposing squads at the 1979 Pan Am Games, with Jesse representing the United States and Victor swimming with the host Puerto Rican team, the two were each other's biggest boosters.

That meet marked Jesse's first swim in his native land since his family had left it seven years previously. Sporting yellow "Vassallo" t-shirts, friends and relatives led the crowd in "Viva Vassallo" cheers, while Jesse rode the waves to a world-record 2:03.29 in the 200-meter IM.

I was a little nervous about swimming in Puerto Rico, a little unsure how the people would like me. My father left partly because the teams there didn't provide what we needed, and so when I went back for the United States I didn't know what to expect. They were great. Once I got there I knew I wanted to swim super fast for the people and my family." Vassallo said.

After his 1978 graduation from Mission Viejo. Vassallo stayed in California for a year, attending Saddleback Junior College in hopes that the extra schooling would help his English so that he could move on to a major swimming school without

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