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FEELING RIGHT AT HOME IN SAN JUAN
Joe Marshall
July 16, 1979
Jesse Vassallo wowed them in his native land and 15-year-old Cynthia Woodhead won five gold medals as American swimmers led the way for the U.S. during a productive opening week at the Pan-American Games
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July 16, 1979

Feeling Right At Home In San Juan

Jesse Vassallo wowed them in his native land and 15-year-old Cynthia Woodhead won five gold medals as American swimmers led the way for the U.S. during a productive opening week at the Pan-American Games

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The VIII Pan-American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico have brought together 4,400 athletes representing 33 Western Hemisphere nations in 25 sports. Yet for the U.S. swimmers, whose main international rivals are East Germany and the Soviet Union, the Games promised to provide little more than a brisk workout. Nevertheless, the American showing in San Juan was closely watched by the rest of the swimming world. "What goes on here is a preview of coming attractions," said Frank Keefe of Yale, the head coach for the U.S. swimming team. "In these Games we're showcasing what we're putting together for next year in Moscow."

Considering what took place last week in San Juan's El Escambron pool, the show in Moscow should be a smash hit. The Americans won 28 of a possible 29 gold medals, including the first 20 in a row before Anne Gagnon and Joanne Bedard of Canada finished one-two in the 200-meter breaststroke. Of greater significance than the number of victories by the U.S., however, was the quality of the performances in those events. The Americans' 28 wins produced 28 Pan-American Games records and three world marks.

The first world record fell on the second night of the week-long competition when 15-year-old Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead won the 200-meter freestyle in 1:58.43, .1 faster than the record she set last August at the world championships in Berlin. Later in the week 17-year-old Jesse Vassallo—who was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico but now makes his home in Mission Viejo, Calif. and swims for the U.S.—beat Canada's Graham Smith in the 200-meter individual medley in a world-record 2:03.29. That erased the mark of 2:03.62 Smith set in Berlin while beating Vassallo. Last, and least in age at 14, came eighth-grader Mary T. Meagher (pronounced Maw-her), not only the youngest of the U.S. swimmers but also a lass who was described by her coach, Dennis Pursley, as "weak in the arms." Saturday night she whipped through the 200-meter butterfly in 2:09.77, .1 better than the record held jointly by teammate Tracy Caulkins and East Germany's Andrea Pollack.

The U.S. swimmers were at the forefront of an American gold rush that began on the first morning of competition with a triumph in roller skating, a new sport for the Games. By the end of the first of two weeks of competition, the U.S. had won 72 gold medals, 28 more than its closest rival, Cuba. This was not unexpected. In the seven previous Games, which have been held in the year preceding the Olympics since 1951, Americans had won 58% of the gold medals. As usual, the U.S. sent the largest contingent—714 athletes, coaches and team officials—to Puerto Rico. Among the principal surprises of the first week was the strong showing of a U.S. women's gymnastics team that had expected to be shut out because most of the leading U.S. performers had remained at home. Led by 13-year-old Jackie Cassello of Silver Spring, Md., who won a gold in the vault and a silver in the uneven bars, the U.S. women won five medals—two gold and three silver.

But the highlight of the week was the emotional display touched off by Vassallo's record and his earlier win in the 400-meter IM. Vassallo moved from Puerto Rico six years ago at the age of 11, but he remains a national hero. He wanted to swim for the Puerto Rican Olympic team in 1976, but Puerto Rican officials said that to be eligible he would have to come back home to train for the year preceding the Games. Reasoning that the facilities and coaching were better in the United States, he decided to stay put.

Vassallo missed making the 1976 U.S. Olympic team in the 400-meter IM by two seconds, but a month after Montreal he won the national AAU championship in that event. He hasn't been beaten in it since. When he subsequently competed for America in an international event, in effect he established his swimming citizenship in the U.S. Not surprisingly, Puerto Rico has now changed its policy, which explains why Jesse's older brother, Victor, who also lives in Mission Viejo, was swimming for Puerto Rico in the Pan-American Games.

To welcome Jesse back to his native land last week, his uncle Salvador spent $6,000 for 2,000 yellow T shirts with VASSALLO printed in large red block letters across the chest. In smaller letters just below were the words PUERTO RICO. The shirts were given out to family and friends, who created a large and distinctive cheering section every time Jesse swam. They sat with quiet pride when Vassallo mounted the victory stand following his 400-meter IM win. After the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner to signify the American victory, the Vassallo cheering section began clapping in unison. Then, spontaneously, the fans rose and began to sing the Puerto Rican national anthem. La Borinque�a. From inside his sweat suit Vassallo suddenly produced a small Puerto Rican flag and waved it. The cheers became thunderous.

The youthful women's team, which dominated last year's world championships after an older squad had been all but shut out of gold medals in Montreal, was getting its first exposure to an athletes' village. In Puerto Rico the swimmers lived nine to an apartment in a low-income housing project that had been abandoned in an unfinished state three years ago but had been refurbished for the Games. Because of the volatile political atmosphere—a fear that the controversy over Puerto Rican independence might produce disruptions—the compound was surrounded by high fences and armed guards. The women's housing, as usual, was off limits to the men, and was separated from the rest of the complex by barbed wire. Understandably, this contributed to village boredom, which probably explains why a group of American male athletes was scolded by security guards after dropping water bombs on other competitors.

Woodhead led the way for the U.S. women with five gold medals, including those for two freestyle legs on relays and victories in the 100, 200 and 400 free-styles. In the 400 she went head to head with Caulkins, who may drop the breast-stroke before Moscow and concentrate instead on longer freestyle events. Caulkins, 16, holds the American records in both the 100-and 200-meter breast-strokes and, therefore, almost always swims that stroke in medley relays. When she lost the 100 breaststroke in San Juan to Tami Paumier, who was a week shy of her 16th birthday, Caulkins appeared to be relieved by the emergence of another American breaststroker. Paumier, on the other hand, seemed embarrassed by her upset and quickly apologized to Caulkins.

"You can learn to hate a stroke," said Tom Caulkins, Tracy's father, later that evening, noting that his daughter hadn't been working much on her breaststroke lately. Meanwhile, Tracy's new coach, Don Talbot, confirmed that Caulkins' entry in the 400 free, her first race at that distance in international competition, was a way of testing the water for a possible move to the long-distance freestyle events. Because of that experiment Caulkins was on the sidelines for the 200 fly when Meagher broke Tracy's shared world record.

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