Jesse Vassallo  (1961- ) : World Champion Swimmer
by Dr. Neysa Rodríguez Deynes

He is the most accomplished swimmer in the Caribbean. At the age of seventeen, he set his first world record, unbroken for the next four years. At eighteen, he set his second world record, unbroken for the next three years. At the height of his career, President Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics to be held in Moscow and Jesse was unable to participate, although he performed, at a simultaneously held competition, faster times than the actual gold medallists at the Olympics. He was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and in Japan, an honor awarded to only 320 swimmers in the world. Sports Illustrated also placed him in the list of the top 10 athletes in the world. 

Jesús David “Jesse” Vassallo was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico on August 9, 1961. His father, Víctor Vassallo, was a lawyer and entrepreneur and his mother, Daisy Anadón, was a housewife and devoted mother of five boys; Jesse being the third child. He attended Cristo Rey School until the fifth grade. Then, his family moved to Miami, Florida, and later, to Misión Viejo, California, where Jesse completed his secondary studies at Misión Viejo High School in 1979. In 1981 he moved back to Miami, where he enrolled at the University of Miami and graduated in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications.

Jesse’s family was very close and used to spend most of their time together. His father loved sports and was always searching for a sport in which his five boys could practice together. They tried basketball and boxing, among other sports, but Víctor was not satisfied with the results. By chance, when Jesse was nine years old, at a family weekend in San Juan, some girls were swimming laps for fun back and forth at a local pool and Víctor challenged them to race his children. They did so well that the girls asked them if they belonged to a swimming team. They certainly did not, but were encouraged by them to enter competitive swimming. At their return to Ponce, his father sought for a local team in which he could enroll the boys. Such was the beginning of a spectacular swimming career for young Jesse, whom, at that time, was nicknamed “Chayanne” by his friends and family.

A year later, at the age of ten, Jesse broke his first swimming record, the 50 meters backstroke. Since then, he became the master of that event on the island. At eleven, he participated in his first international competition, the 1973 Central American and Caribbean Games in Ibagué, Colombia. He swam the Medley Relay in backstroke and his team won the gold medal. Also at eleven, his father decided to move to Miami to open a branch of Vassallo Industries, a family company which he co-owned with his three brothers, and Jesse started training with the “Hurricanes” at the University of Miami. Within three years, out of the twelve possible national records available in the age-group level events, Jesse owned nine of them: the 200, 400 and 1,500 meters freestyle, 100 and 200 meters backstroke, 200 and 400 meters Individual Medley and 200 butterfly. He was ranked top ten in the world in three of those events.

Such was Jesse’s success in the sport that his father decided to move to Misión Viejo, California, so Jesse could train with Mark Schubert, one of the best swimming coaches in the United States, whom later became the U.S. Swimming Olympic Team coach since 1980 to the present. It was 1976 and Jesse, still a Puerto Rican at heart and soul, wanted to participate in the Puerto Rico trials for the Olympics, which were to be held in Montreal. Unfortunately, the Puerto Rican Swimming Federation made it impossible for Jesse to participate, since they required, among other technicalities, that he moved back to Puerto Rico and lived there for a year before the trials. This attitude was absurd, but a common one in Puerto Rican sports to this day. Jesse was just training in the United States, because of better facilities, and that did not mean that he ceased to be a Puerto Rican preferring to swim for his country. It would have been an honor to have Jesse, a national age-group champion and AAU record holder at the time, on the Puerto Rican team. 

Therefore, at only fourteen years of age, Jesse tired out for the U.S. Team and arrived 6th in three events. He could not participate in the Olympics, for the team was made of the first three places. However, a month after the Olympics, he participated in his first U.S. Swimming Nationals at Philadelphia, and won his first national title, and his first national gold medal in the 1,500 meters freestyle, defeating the two U.S swimmers who won gold and silver in Montreal. The following year, in 1977, he won the 400 meters I.M. again at the U.S. Nationals. Since then, Jesse’s career skyrocketed. He began to travel with the U.S. Team to meets in New Zealand, Holland and France, among many other countries, winning a great amount of medals for himself and for the U.S. Team.

Jesse broke his first world record in the 400 meters Individual Medley at the trials for the 1978 World Championships to be held in Berlin, Germany, celebrated in Woodland, Texas. In Berlin, he broke his own record again, won a second gold medal in the 200 backstroke and a silver in the 200 IM. At this time, Jesse was a proud young man who trained seven to eight hours a day. At the age of seventeen, in the 1979 Pan American Games celebrated in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jesse broke his third world record, in the 200 meters IM, won gold in the 400 IM and silver in the 200 backstroke. That same year Sports Illustrated placed him in the list of the top 10 athletes in the world, sharing such honor with men like Mario Andretti, Bjorn Borg and Muhammed Ali. Curiously enough, he was declined the title of athlete of the year at his high school, loosing to a football player.

In 1980, Jesse held two world records and was ready to go to Moscow for the Olympic Games. He was also training in the 200 meters butterfly and the 400 meters freestyle. But President Carter denied all American athletes such opportunity by mixing sports with politics during the Cold War. By executive order, the United States could not compete at the 1980 Olympiad. It was a big disappointment for all American athletes and the United States tried to compensate by holding a competition in the U.S. at the same time that the Olympics were held in Moscow. In the swimming competition, Jesse made a better time than the gold medallists in Moscow in his two world record events: the 200 and 400 IM. The American athletes were also compensated with trips to China and Hawaii, but nothing could bring back the lost chance for the Olympic gold. They were told that since many soldiers have lost their lives at war to defend American democracy, such sacrifice must be regarded as their duty to their country.

After ten years of hard work, travels to half of Europe, Japan, South Africa, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, being at the top and denied the 1980 Olympics, Jesse was ready for a change. He decided to move back to Miami and enrolled at Miami University. He continued his swimming training but was interrupted by a knee injury, which took him to surgery and out of the pool. This was a hard time for Jesse, for getting back into Olympic shape was a hard endeavor. Nevertheless, he fought back and made the U.S. Team for the 1984 Olympics to be held in Los Angeles. He participated in his two world record events, arriving fourth in the 400 IM and ninth in the 200IM.

In 1985 Jesse returned to Puerto Rico. He met his future wife Betsy López, an accomplished athlete herself and sister of Major League Baseball star of the Atlanta Braves Javier López, and had three sons: Jesse, Víctor Jacinto and Alejandro. Jesse worked at the family industry for three years and in 1988 started his own company with his brothers: Vassallo Unlimited, producers of solid surfaces material for the construction market. He coached the Nadadores Ponce Leones Swimming Team and participated in the Puerto Rico Swimmers Masters League, becoming once more among the top 10 Masters swimmers in the world.

No other Caribbean swimmer, male or female, has accomplished as much rank and recognition as Jesse Vassallo. However, he regrets that when he is introduced as an athlete, the first question that comes to mind is always how many Olympic medals has he won, and he is forced to say none. At the same time, he holds in his heart the fact that he was at the top of the world for the 1980 Olympics and could not bring the gold for political reasons, completely foreign to his athletic career. His 200 meter IM record remained unbroken for three years and his 400 meter IM record for four years. 

In 1997 Jesse Vassallo was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, an honor he believes is greater than an Olympic medal, for there are thousands of Olympic medals around the world, but there are only 320 swimmers in the world who are permanent members of the ISHF. He was also inducted to the Swimming Hall of Fame in Japan, the U.S. Sports Hall of Fame at the University of Florida, the Puerto Rico Sports Hall of Fame and his native Ponce Sports Hall of Fame. He has appeared in countless of journals, magazines and newspapers such as The Olympian, Sports Illustrated, Sourcebook, U.S. Swimming, The World of Swimming, Berliner Morgenpost, Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, Family Weekley and several covers of Swimming World.

Nonetheless, Jesse is more than an accomplished swimmer; he is also a conscientious citizen who has served office at the Municipal Assembly in Ponce and was Press Secretary to Ponce’s Mayor, Honorable Rafael Cordero Santiago. His current goal is to develop the swimming sport in Puerto Rico, not at the competitive level but at the educational one. Surprisingly, only 15% of the population of the island knows how to swim, and close to a hundred people died each year drowned at the beaches during recreational visits. Jesse believes, like many people around the world, that Puerto Rico is a beautiful island, rich in water resources such as beaches and coral reefs, and the inability to swim prevents thousands of Puerto Ricans to enjoy that natural beauty. He would like to bring to these people the knowledge of swimming, not only for the recreational aspect of the skill, but because he believes that learning to swim teaches a person how to overcome all kinds of obstacles in life, step by step, just the way one learns to swim. Learning to swim teaches a person the skill of mastering a process of development, which is useful to learn to master any other aspect of their personal or professional lives.

References and Suggested Readings:

Kirshenbaum, Jerry.  “Don’t Stop the Music, Change It.”  Sports Illustrated (14 August 1978).

The Montgomery County Daily Courier (Conroe, Texas)  (6 August 1978).
“New American Swim Star Seeking Olympic Gold.”  The New York Times (10 April, 1978).

Rodríguez-Deynes, Neysa.  Personal Interview with Jesse Vassallo. Ponce, Puerro Rico, November 18, 2000.

Sports Illustrated 52:11 (!3 March 1980).

Sports Illustrated 52:11 (9 July 1984).

Smith, Theresa.  “Vassallo Has New Outlook.”  The Denver Post (6 June 1985).

Swimming Technique – The Journal of Swimming, Diving and Water Polo.  Official Publication of the American Swimming Coaches Association  (Spring 1978).

Swimming World 19:6 (June 1978).

 “World Swim Championships Under Way in Swirl of Politics.”  International Herald Tribune (19-20 August 1978).

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Dr. Cirilo Toro Vargas
Published on the Internet:  February 6, 2001.