Hall of Fame Honoree Jesse Vassallo Joins ISHOF’s One in a Thousand Campaign
by ANDY ROSS
1978 World Champ and 1997 Hall of Fame Inductee Jesse Vassallo has joined the One in a Thousand campaign, which is designed to help the Hall of Fame prosper during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I believe in keeping history,” Vassallo said. “To me it is a huge honor to be a part of it and I wouldn’t want that to ever go away. I want it to grow and it’s really nice to see it being rebuilt and recharged.”
Vassallo, who grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Miami when he was 11, has a rich history with the facility.
“For my big meet, we would drive up here to the Hall of Fame. It was always to come up here. I used to look through the cracks because it seemed like every time we came up, it was closed! We would look through the long windows and read as much as I could. I remember getting the chance to go inside and looking at the wall with all the cartoons and drawings on it. It was very inspiring and I wondered what it would be like to be in there. To me, it was a great surprise when I got inducted. Being part of the boycott and not making the 1980 team…the ultimate goal for everybody is a gold medal, and to not be there I thought (getting in the hall of fame) wasn’t going to happen. I was very happy when I did.”
Vassallo, who still lives in nearby Pompano Beach, coaching the Pompano Piranhas, still keeps in touch with the Hall of Fame facility updates, and was even a guest of honor for the groundbreaking ceremony in April 2019.
“It’s super exciting. I always try to keep informed with what was happening and for so many years, we didn’t know whether it was going to leave or stay or were they going to tear it apart or rebuild? It was very exciting to see the city committed to rebuild that pool and the rest of it. It’s great to see it’s going to have a second life. South Florida brings a lot of people because of swimming and all the 50m pools get packed in the winter time. I think with the Hall of Fame making some noise, it’s going to bring even more good swimmers.
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Jesse Vassallo – 1997 Honor Swimmer
He began his swimming career at Club Deportivo de Ponce and became the most successful swimmer ever from the Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico. Given the name Jesus David, dubbed Cheyenne by his mother, Daise, but known throughout the world as Jesse, this young swimmer, at an early age, became the hero to many a younger competitor. During his six year international career, Jesse Vassallo set three world records in the individual medley, lasting a combined five years.
Because his father wanted better and faster training for Jesse and Jesse’s four brothers, and also to improve upon their English, the family moved from Ponce, Puerto Rico, to Miami, where, at age 11, in 1974, Jesse began swimming with the Hurricane Swim Club. Soon he set his first national record at age 13 in the 200m backstroke. At that point, his father, a successful businessman and professional basketball player, knew his son had what it took to be a champion. That year became a pivotal year for Jesse and the family as they moved to California to train under the famed Mission Viejo coach, Mark Schubert.
Under Schubert’s cautious guidance, Jesse Vassallo improved enough to compete in his first National Championship meet (1976) and win his first National Championship race (1977) at Kelly Pool in Philadelphia.
In 1978, as a 17 year old “Gold Fish,” Jesse got gold fever at the Berlin World Championships, winning both the 200m and the 400m individual medleys and setting a world record in the 400m individual medley, a record he broke once more and held for four years; all while he was still in high school.
In 1979, Vassallo claimed five more US National Championships and prepared for his first swim in his native Puerto Rico since his family had left seven years previously. “I was a little nervous about swimming at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, a little unsure how the people would like me having gone to the United States to train. But they were great. Once I got there, I knew I wanted to swim super fast for the people and for my family,” Vassallo said. And super fast he swam, winning the 200m IM in world record time (2:03.29) and the 400m IM, and taking the silver in the 200m backstroke. Friends and relatives, all sporting yellow “Vassallo” t-shirts led the crowd in “Viva Vassallo” cheers.
Jesse Vassallo was the Kid of the IM; world record holder in both the 200m and 400m IM, World Championship gold medalist in the 400m IM, and Pan American Games gold medalist in both the 200m and 400m IM. Swimming World magazine selected him as World Swimmer of the Year for 1978 and the European press chose him as one of the world’s top ten athletes, among major sports stars as Muhammad Ali, Bjorn Borg and Mario Andretti.
But hardships fell upon Jesse. He was riding high to compete at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Like many other athletes, his dreams were shattered with the Olympic boycott. His father was struck by a car on the road and never recovered, and during his illustrious career as a student athlete at the University of Miami swimming under Coach Bill Diaz, Jesse seriously damaged his left knee ligaments, requiring surgery and almost two years of recovery, keeping him out of the 1982 Guayaquil World Championships. “You don’t know what you’ve got until you don’t have it anymore. Now I want it back,” said Jesse.
Propelled by his passion for sports he inherited from his father, and the relentless spirit of a true champion, his comeback in 1984 included another national title in the 200m backstroke and another spot on the US Olympic Team where he managed a fourth place in the 400m IM race at Los Angeles.
The recovery time before the Olympics was not quite long enough to fully heal and prepare for international competition.
After 14 years, following the 1984 Games, Jesse Vassallo announced his retirement from competitive swimming. Since then, he has conducted swimming clinics in the US, Puerto Rico and Central and South America and currently coaches the swim team in his hometown. He and his brothers have established a successful manufacturing operation. Jesse lives with his wife Bethsabee and their three children Jess, Victor and Alejandro, in Puerto Rico.
The International Swimming Hall of Fame wants to know if you are one in a thousand? We think you are! Show how special you are and become a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s “One In A Thousand” Club. Help keep the International Swimming Hall of Fame moving forward toward a new vision and museum by joining now!
During these unprecedented times, the ISHOF Board is calling on every member in the aquatic community to make a small monthly commitment of support to show how special you are and how special the International Swimming Hall of Fame is to everyone.
“Our goal is simple. If we get 1,000 people to simply commit $10, $25 or $50 per month, we will generate enough revenue to go beyond this Covid-19 Pandemic Crisis.” – Bill Kent – Chairman of the ISHOF Board
“Those that believe in our vision, mission, and goals can join us in taking ISHOF into the future and be a part of aquatic history.” – Brent Rutemiller – CEO and President of ISHOF
Since 1965, ISHOF has been the global focal point for recording and sharing the history of aquatics, promoting swimming as an essential life-skill, and developing educational programs and events related to water sports. ISHOF’s vision for the future is to build a new museum and expand its reach by offering its museum artifacts digitally through a redesigned website.
The ISHOF Board of Directors is calling on all members of the aquatics community to make a small monthly commitment to show their dedication to aquatics and how special the International Swimming Hall of Fame is to everyone.