Sixteen-year-old Jesse Vassallo was stretched out on the deck of a 50-meter pool in The Woodlands, Texas last Friday night trying to psych himself up for a race he was about to swim in the AAU long-course championships. But Vassallo was having a bit of trouble working himself into the proper frame of mind. "It's that music," he complained, referring to the mellow strains coming from a nearby portable radio. "It's too boring."
Obligingly, a coach turned the dial to a station playing more pulsating disco sounds. "That's better," Vassallo said. "That'll get me going."
Vassallo savored the music for a few minutes and then headed off for the start of the 400-meter individual medley, an event that is sometimes called the decathlon of swimming. Vassallo remained in the pack in the opening butterfly leg but built a widening lead in the backstroke and breaststroke legs. Then, as the crowd urged him on with a rhythmic go-go-go chant, he blasted home in the final freestyle leg to finish in 4:23.39, eclipsing Rod Strachan's world record of 4:23.68. Climbing out of the pool, Vassallo gave credit where it was due. "It was the music that did it for me," he said.
Vassallo's big swim was one of four world records—two by men and two by women—broken at the AAU meet, but it was the only one attributable to a musical interlude. And that was not the only way that the slight 5'7" schoolboy distinguished himself in The Woodlands, a new real-estate development set in a pine-forested area 25 miles northwest of Houston. Besides his world record in the 400 IM, the versatile Vassallo won the 200 IM and the 200 backstroke and was runner-up in the 1,500 freestyle to become the men's star of the five-day meet. And because the first two finishers in every event qualified for the World Aquatic Championships later this month in West Berlin, he also emerged as a key figure—perhaps the key figure—in the U.S. effort to maintain supremacy in men's swimming.
August 13, 1978
All this was achieved by a quiet young man who will celebrate his 17th birthday this week. A native of Puerto Rico, Vassallo moved with his family to Florida in 1972 so that he and his four brothers, all of whom are swimmers, could get better coaching. Then, three years later, the Vassallos moved to California, and the boys joined the powerful Mission Viejo Nadadores swim club. Jesse improved dramatically, setting age-group records left and right, and last spring he broke the American record in the 400-yard IM, an event contested only in 25-yard short-course pools. Still, Vassallo remained very much in the shadow of Mission Viejo teammate Brian Goodell, the Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder in the 400 and 1,500 free-styles. And he figured to remain in that shadow at least a while longer; Goodell was entered in four events in The Woodlands and was generally counted on to be the mainstay of the U.S. team at the world championships, which begin Aug. 18 and last 10 days.
Instead, Goodell came down with a strep throat a week before the AAUs and failed to make the 45-member team. The stunning development somewhat tempered the pleasure Vassallo took in his own successes. "We need Brian in Berlin," fretted Vassallo. "We're not going to be nearly as strong without him."
Another Olympic champion to fall victim to physical miseries was Bruce Furniss, the '76 gold medalist in the 200 freestyle. Furniss has been bothered by chronic back troubles and he struggled to a fourth-place finish in the 200 in the AAUs, thereby gaining a berth on the 800-meter free relay. Goodell's problems and the reduced services of Furniss aroused fears that the U.S. men, who had taken 12 of 13 events in Montreal, might have their hands full in West Berlin with, in particular, the Soviet Union, whose men have turned in some formidable clockings in recent weeks. The Soviets have been plotting big things in swimming for a long time, only to come up empty, but with the '80 Games in Moscow, their desired breakthrough may finally be at hand. "The Russians made some mistakes in the past but that appears over," says Don Gambril of the University of Alabama, one of the U.S. world championship coaches. "For the first time, they're deep in just about every men's event."
Complicating the picture for the U.S. is uncertainty about some of the Olympians who are going to West Berlin. These include Jim Montgomery and Mike Bruner, winners at Montreal in the 100 freestyle and 200 butterfly, respectively; both had shaky moments at the AAUs and made the team by finishing second to Auburn junior David McCagg and Olympian Steve Gregg, respectively. And while silver-medalist Joe Bottom won his 100-meter butterfly specialty, he finished [8/10]ths of a second above his year-old world record of 54.18. Montgomery, Bruner and Bottom all are hoping for faster times in West Berlin. As the 23-year-old Montgomery said, sounding just a touch unsure, "An old man like me can use a second chance."
Under the circumstances, it was probably a good thing that the AAU meet also turned up some fresh talent, including several high school hotshots who got no closer to the 1976 Olympics than their television sets. Particularly impressive was Steve Lundquist, a 17-year-old from Jonesboro, Ga. who won the 100-meter breaststroke and set a world record of 2:04.39 in a preliminary heat of the 200 IM, nearly a second under the month-old record of the Soviet Union's Alexander Sidorenko. Climbing happily out of the water after his record swim, Lundquist seemed to suffer a frightening, but fortunately mild, shock when he leaned his dripping wet body against an exposed metal pipe at poolside. "That just about tore me apart," he said. Fortunately the shock was not serious and workmen quickly boarded up the pipe. Lundquist got a different kind of shock that night when Vassallo won the final in a relatively pokey 2:05.90. But runner-up Lundquist still had his world record and he firmly vowed, "Now I intend to become world champion and make my record stick."
To do so, however, he will have to beat Vassallo, which may not be easy. Despite his worries about how the U.S. men might fare in West Berlin, Vassallo is no more uncertain of his own abilities than Lundquist is of his. After Lundquist's world-record performance in the prelims, Vassallo swam his own heat, then returned to his motel room and watched Tom and Jerry cartoons on TV. "That world record didn't bother me," he said. "I just told myself I'd have to catch him tonight."
The women—or, rather, girls—did a bit of record setting in The Woodlands, too, and apparently have now recovered from the demoralization suffered in Montreal at the hands of the East Germans, who won 11 of 13 events. Most of the victims of that mauling have since been replaced by a crop of young, eager water sprites who have steadily narrowed the gap between their own clockings and those of the East Germans. The trend continued last week, which was the first time that American women have broken two world records at the same meet since 1974. The AAUs also produced American records in nine of the 10 other individual events.
As expected, the leading gap closer was Tracy Caulkins, the 15-year-old sensation from Nashville. The 5'8" Caulkins is long-muscled and flexible and she is also a demon for conditioning. "That's because she has such a high pain threshold," says her father, a school administrator. "Her dentist calls her the best patient he's got. She doesn't take Novocain and she still doesn't feel anything. The bad part of this is that Tracy gets no advance warning of illness. Where other people get a sore throat first, Tracy just comes down with fever without knowing it."
On arriving in Texas, Tom Caulkins' daughter relaxed by sitting in the bleachers and reading A Farewell to Arms. Then she shaved her arms and legs and went to work on her avowed goal, namely, to start adding world records to the nine American records she already held. "I'm swimming five events here and I think I can get a world record in any of them," Tracy said cautiously. "I'm not sure which one I've got the best chance in, though."
It appeared at first that she might set world records in everything. On opening night she slashed through the water to win the 200 IM in 2:15.09 and, just like that, break the world record of 2:15.85 of East Germany's Ulrike Tauber. However, the next morning she lolled to a 1:14.22 in a heat of the 100 breaststroke, far slower than her American-record 1:12.98. That tied her for eighth in the preliminaries with a 16-year-old Miamian, Patty Waters, and because eight qualify for the final, the two of them were pitted in a swimoff. Caulkins won it but her coach, Paul Bergen, was worried that she was becoming too distracted by autograph seekers and reporters. "Tracy's got to learn to say excuse me to people," said Bergen. She was whisked away following the swimoff and slept for more than two hours. That night she took the final in 1:10.97, an American record and just a few ticks off East German Hannalore Anke's world record of 1:10.86. "I just wasn't mentally with it this morning," Tracy said of her scare in the earlier heat. "I guess I was overconfident."
Caulkins next won the 400 IM in 4:47.06 and the 200 butterfly in 2:10.09, breaking her own American record in the one and Nancy Hogshead's in the other. On Sunday she ended the binge with an American record of 2:35.23 in the 200 breaststroke. By the time the waters stopped roiling, she had won five events and picked up her first world record. And she had added another batch of American records; astonishingly, she has now lowered American records 27 times in just 17 months.
Hard though it may be to believe, Caulkins was far from the whole show for the American women. There was also Kim Linehan, a superstitious 15-year-old from Sarasota, Fla. who would not dream of swimming a race without having her three stuffed animals at poolside. They were all in Texas—Jocko, Kong and Snoopy—when she joined Caulkins in the world-record game with a 4:07.66 clocking in the 400 freestyle, more than a second under the record of the GDR's Petra Thümer. She also won the 800 free in an American record 8:31.99. At that, Linehan was scarcely any more impressive than 18-year-old Linda Jezek, one of only three '76 Olympians going to Berlin on the women's team. Jezek has not been beaten by an American in an open backstroke race in two years and she kept that string intact by winning the 100 and 200, edging close to the GDR-held world records in both. In addition, 14-year-old Sippy Woodhead picked up two firsts and two seconds in freestyle events, including a lightning-fast 1:59.49 in the 200.
None of this necessarily means that the U.S. women will put the East Germans to rout. The GDR women broke four world records in their championships last month, and the suspicion lingers that they may have been holding back for the world championships. Still, the American women are thinking positive. "We think we can make a good showing against them," said Caulkins. Agreeing, Kim Linehan said, "Everybody talks about how scary the East Germans are, but that's silly. They're just like regular people except they come from a different country."
What makes such talk seem less rash is the instructive case of Brian Goodell, whose troubles in The Woodlands suggest that fortunes can shift rather rapidly in swimming. Despite his illness, Goodell went into his first event, the 400 free, with expectations of winning, and he actually led after 100 meters. At that point something happened. "The first 100 felt great," Goodell later told Mark Schubert, his coach at Mission Viejo, "but then I couldn't feel the water. I didn't know where I was."
Schubert smiled wanly and said, "When everybody began to pass you, didn't that give you a clue?"
Among those who whizzed by was USC-bound Jeff Float, a strapping lad of 18 with a well-nigh-perfect surname for a swimmer. As Goodell faded to fifth, Float won in 3:54.32, a smashing performance for someone who passed up top-level competition last summer to compete instead in the World Olympic Games for the Deaf in Bucharest, where he won 10 gold medals. An anesthesiologist's son from Sacramento, Float lost most of his hearing when he was stricken with meningitis at the age of 13 months, but he follows conversation with the use of a hearing aid and by reading lips. And he gets along just fine at swimming meets.
"I can tell when the starter says 'Take your mark' by watching the other swimmers get into position," he says. "And the gun is usually no problem. Horns sound under each block, and I can pick that up pretty well. Communicating with my coach [Sherm Chavoor of Sacramento's Arden Hills Swim Club] is no problem, either. He mumbles so much that even people who can hear don't know what he's saying."
For his part, Chavoor joked, "Don't let Float kid you. He hears exactly what he wants, which is true of all my other swimmers." Chavoor may have something in his analysis. After Float's victory, a television crew fitted Jeff with an earplug and he easily answered questions during an interview.
As for Goodell, after his troubles in the 400 freestyle, he placed 10th in the 200 free, fourth in the 400 IM and ninth in the 1,500 free. His Mission Viejo teammate Ed Ryder won the 1,500 in 15:24.84, followed by Vassallo.
By breaking the world record in Texas, Vassallo had already achieved a goal of considerable personal importance. He and his brothers had gotten into swimming in Puerto Rico at the urging of their father, Victor, a successful businessman who continued to work out of offices in San Juan and Miami after the family moved to the West Coast. The commute finally became too much, and last year the Vassallos moved back to Florida, with the idea that they would return once more to Mission Viejo—and Jesse to the Nadadores—as the '80 Olympics drew nearer. Then last October Victor Vassallo's automobile broke down on a Florida highway. Getting out to seek assistance, he was hit by another car and killed. The Vassallo boys and their mother moved back to Mission Viejo shortly after, and Jesse now says, "My dad wanted me to be a good swimmer, and that's what pushes me on."
As Jesse swam to his world record, his mother was watching at poolside. "It's a happy moment for me and also a sad moment," she said. "My husband's whole life was his boys and swimming. His goal was that Jesse would break a world record and go to the Olympics."
With that goal now half achieved, where do the world championships in West Berlin fit in? "It would be nice if Jesse could do well there," she said. "I wasn't planning to go but now I'm tempted. It's really funny, but when I left Mission Viejo to come here, I brought my passport."