At the Saturday morning session of last week's three-day, 20-nation U.S. Swimming International meet in Gainesville, Fla., Jesse Vassallo created a stir in the bleachers simply by walking past them. Little girl swimmers giggled and pointed, and an elderly priest in the third row turned pale. Vassallo, a University of Miami sophomore and the world-record holder in the 400-meter individual medley, was stark naked, except for the U.S. SWIMMING towel wrapped about his waist—a threadbare garment that happened to have a two-inch hole in it, right where the S for swimming should have been. "Hey, Jesse, I like your backstroke," someone yelled. Vassallo, having swum his preliminaries and showered, was just looking for his pants.
The 1982 International was supposed to be an American-dominated meet, but instead, like Vassallo's towel, it exposed some bare spots in U.S. swimming. Of 28 individual events, Americans won only six, and not until the final event did they achieve an individual world best by Florida senior Craig Beardsley in the 200 butterfly. On the other hand, six East German women won an astonishing 12 and set five of the meet's seven world bests. "It's still very, very early in the season and there's no telling what shape we're in," warned U.S. Coach Peter Daland on Thursday, the day before the meet began. "And I think there are people out there lying in the bushes."
Tracy Caulkins, America's best all-around woman swimmer, discovered East German world-record holders Petra Schneider or Ute Geweniger lurking in four of her five races and lost all five. "I probably wasn't as well prepared for this as I was last year, but they also plain out-swam me," said Caulkins, now a University of Florida freshman, who in the 1981 International had defeated both Schneider and Geweniger and established six world bests. (Because the meet is held in a 25-meter or "short-course" pool, rather than in a regulation 50-meter pool, no world records could be set.) "There's something of a revenge factor involved," said Schneider, whose retribution included victories in the 400 individual medley, the 200 IM, and the 800 and 1,500 freestyles, with world bests in the last three. Geweniger won the 100 and 200 breaststrokes, with a world best in the 200.
Only a handful of U.S. swimmers performed up to expectations, notably Vassallo and the last active 1976 American Olympian, Wild Jill Sterkel. Besides swimming on two winning relay teams, Vassallo won the 400 IM and was second in the 200 IM and 100 back. "I'm like a pointed stick," he said of his backstroke proficiency. "I keep thinking, 'Stretch out and streamline, point the toes.' A stick with no point and a lot of branches slows up very quickly in the water, but not a pointed stick." Sterkel, a junior at the University of Texas, surpassed the American best in the 50 freestyle and anchored two victorious relays, one of them a world-best by the U.S. 400 medley relay "A" team. Yet, for completely different reasons, both Vassallo and Sterkel had at one time or another expected not to be in Gainesville.
For a while Vassallo didn't expect to be at any meet like this. He stopped training entirely in 1980—having won two world, two Pan Am and 11 national championships—because of the Moscow Olympics boycott. "It was such a disappointment, I can't tell you," he says. But three months' absence from the pool made him start "feeling like a bum" and thinking with some guilt about his father, Victor, his biggest fan, who had been struck by a car and killed in October of 1977.
Victor had moved his family from Puerto Rico, where Jesse was born, to Florida and later to California so that his five sons could train with the finest swim clubs. "He wanted so badly for them to be in a sport," says Jesse's mother, Daisy, who helps run the family's plastic pipe company, Vassallo Industries. "He built them a basketball court, but that didn't work so he tore it up and put in a pool on the same spot. He was so proud of their swimming." He even promised to buy the first of his sons to set a world record a Porsche 928. Jesse was the first—and only—but Victor's four brothers, co-owners of Vassallo Industries, had to fulfill the pledge because the first of Jesse's two world marks came nine months after his father's death. Jesse, with a certain reverence, has kept the Porsche in mint condition. Similarly, although his goatee, mustache and shaggy haircut make him look rather like the Doonesbury comic-strip character Zonker, Jesse won't change them. That was how Victor Vassallo looked.
Jesse returned to swimming in time for the post-Moscow Olympic Trials, in which he won the 400 IM after virtually no training, and he continued pouring it on through 1981, ending the year ranked first in the world in the 400 IM, third in the 200 back and fourth in the 200 IM. "I am having fun now," says Vassallo. "It had become drudgery, with me putting too much pressure on myself." He enrolled at Miami not only to be close to his mother but also to avoid the burden of swimming for a highly competitive, NCAA-championship contender.
Sterkel's doubts about attending the International were based purely on logistics. She had traveled to Spokane to receive the Broderick Cup as the nation's top woman college athlete—an award no swimmer had ever won—and was still there Friday morning. It took four airplanes and nearly 10 hours, but she reached Gainesville early Friday evening. "I switched flights, or it would have been midnight or later," she said. "I have a headache." Nevertheless, on the worst night of the meet for the U.S.—one win in 10 individual events—Sterkel led the American "A" 800 free relay team to victory.
Sterkel, an avid skin diver and water-polo player, has always been an adventuresome sort. During her high school days in Hacienda Heights, Calif., she and her friends would spend their evenings driving around with fire extinguishers, spraying pedestrians, other motorists and anyone else who came into range. "I guess you could say I have a mind for pranks," she says. At Texas, Sterkel has stuffed Coach Paul Bergen's 280Z with newspapers and covered it with unscrewed Oreo cookies. One reason she can get away with such behavior is that at 5'11" and a muscular 170 pounds, she's an imposing young woman.
Her size is an asset in sprints like the 50 free, where her powerful starts and turns make her all but unbeatable. In fact, going into Saturday night's final, she had never lost either a 50-yard or a 50-meter freestyle, and that included seven years of senior-level world-class competition. Sterkel, still only 20, finished second to Kim Peyton in the 100-meter free way back in the 1975 Pan Am Games and swam the fastest leg on the 1976 U.S. Olympic 400 free relay team, which won America's only women's swimming gold medal at Montreal. Perhaps her greatest performance came last year, when she won five individual freestyle and butterfly events at the AIAW championships in March and an equal number of gold medals, including two in relays, at the World University Games in July.
But Saturday, while she was breaking Laurie Lehner's year-old U.S. best in the 50, Sterkel was also losing her unblemished record at the distance. East Germany's Caren (Moose) Metschuck, the world's best 100 freestyler and a woman of notable girth, breadth and brawn—bigger than Sterkel—finished in a world-best 25.28 seconds, .32 ahead of Sterkel.
"I am mad," said Sterkel. "I swam a terrible race. My right foot kind of slipped back on the start, and my turn was awful. I wish I could throw it out and start all over."
She had another shot at Metschuck on the final freestyle leg of that night's 400 medley relay and got some measure of revenge: Her split was 54.64 compared to Metschuck's 55.76, and the U.S. team won in 4:06.43, a world best by .52. In Sunday's 100 free, Metschuck, who had also won the 100 butterfly, won again while Sterkel finished fourth.
Aside from Metschuck, the stars of the meet were Schneider and Geweniger, the two contrasting 18-year-olds from Karl-Marx-Stadt (Schneider, like Caulkins, would turn 19 on Monday). Schneider is most successful in the 400 individual medley, while Geweniger dominates the breaststroke and is Schneider's match in the 200 IM. Both speak in low, husky voices—prompting charges of steroid use—but neither is the frightening man-woman creature that exists in the minds of many Westerners. Schneider, whose parents are divorced, lives with her mother, a chemical-lab worker, and to be distinctive wears two earrings in her right ear but only one in her left. Geweniger, the daughter of a butcher, likes reggae and disco music and wants to be a cosmetologist. "In the future I will be able to use the psychological aspects to my advantage over Tracy because I have won here," she said.
For this year the "future" consists of just one meet, the world championships to be held Aug. 2 to 8 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Vassallo, who was a local hero at the 1979 Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico, can't wait to compete in another Latin American venue. Most of the other American swimmers, who were unshaved and unrested for the International, are eager to show that their performances in Gainesville were an early-season fluke. As Caulkins said when it was all over, "This kind of meet can help us. The next time we'll be the ones out for revenge. Next time we're going to want it more."