Jesse Vassallo was considered the greatest individual medley swimmer in the world in the late 1970s and was expected to be the swimming star of the 1980 Olympics, until the boycott hit. At the 1978 World Championships Vassallo won two gold medals in the 400 IM and 200 backstroke, and a silver in the 200 IM, and was voted by Swimming World as the 1978 World Swimmer of the Year. He won both IMs at the 1979 Pan American Games, adding a silver in 200 back. In 1981 Vassallo enrolled at the University of Miami and won the 1982 NCAA title in the 400 yard IM. Knee surgery in 1982, however, almost ended his career, but he was able to return to make the 1984 Olympic team.
A Puerto Rican native, Vassallo grew up swimming in Mission Viejo, California, and chose to compete for the United States. After graduating from Miami in 1985 he returned to his island country, where he and his brothers opened Vassallo Unlimited, which produces solid surface materials used in construction. Eventually returning to Florida he later coached age group swimmers in Fort Lauderdale. In 1997 he became the first Puerto Rican to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame, the Puerto Rican Hall of Fame, and the Ponce Hall of Fame.