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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.
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."