Members of the San Pedro Peninsula YMCA swim team used flashlights recently to read stroke instructions during a chilly workout at Miraleste High School in Rancho Palos Verdes.
The sun had long since set, leaving a partial moon and a breathtaking view of the lights of Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. A single spotlight illuminated the icy deck around the school pool, where about 40 youthful swimmers churned up and down the dim lanes, warmed by water heated to a competition-enhancing 80 degrees.
"I swear, this is the coldest place in the world," YMCA Coach Dan Halladay said, hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket.
Icebergs are warmer. But swimmers at the Y shake off shivers. Such sessions are daily rituals at the club, which attracts members from all over the South Bay.
Workouts don't begin before 5 p.m. and usually last three hours. The swimmers, some as young as 5, train in the dark each winter night in the brisk hilltop weather.
Miraleste is one of four facilities used by the San Pedro Peninsula YMCA, which draws its name from a merger of three smaller swim programs several years ago. The club has emerged to become the strongest program in the South Bay and perhaps one of the top 10 in Southern California.
About 125 swimmers train with the club on a daily basis, and much of its success has to do with the variety of young people it attracts.
April Simmons, 9, of Los Angeles lives near L.A. International Airport, but she and her father, R.D. Simmons, drive to Miraleste five times a week.
Roy Elliott, a sophomore at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach, takes a bus, then hitches a ride home with a coach.
Claudia Martinez, 17, a junior at Carson High, was told by the coach of another swim club that she would receive better training at the Peninsula Y.
"We draw a lot of kids from outlying areas," explained Halladay. "We attract minority families from outlying areas. It's a good mix."
Many of the area's top high school swimmers train exclusively with the club and then represent their schools in championship meets, Halladay said. For example, none of the four high schools in the Torrance Unified School District has a swimming pool, yet Halladay is training about a dozen students to represent the district in the Southern Section finals in May.
Said John Shieh, 15, a sophomore at North Torrance High: "It's kind of tough not having a pool at school . . . but it is a good feeling (to be able to represent the school)."
Ironically, the South Bay, home of the Beach Boys and surfing, is not a swimmer's paradise, Halladay said. It lacks facilities. "The excuse is: 'Why do we need pools when we have the ocean nearby?' "
Halladay has been head coach of the club since the merger in 1984. He grew up in Torrance but swam only briefly as a youth. However, his younger brother, John, was a national record-holder at the University of Indiana in the mid-1970s. Their father, Scott Halladay, ran a swim club in Hawthorne, and Dan, who attended UCLA, helped out.
Soon, he said: "I became hooked on coaching."
The San Pedro Peninsula YMCA also uses pools at Rolling Hills and Palos Verdes high schools and at the YMCA facility in San Pedro. Unlike most swim programs, the club is sanctioned to compete in both U.S. Swimming Assn. and YMCA meets, which helps attract more recreational swimmers.
But it has its share of elite swimmers, too. For example, Rolling Hills High junior Deborah Kory, ranked among the nation's top 25 in the 100- and 200-meter breast stroke, trains at Miraleste with Halladay.
Club members range from 5 to 20 years old. They pay dues of $45 a month and are required to participate in one fund-raising activity a year, "usually a swim-a-thon," Halladay said.
The coach tries to keep fund raising to a minimum.
"We're not out pressing for money," he said. "We do OK. I'm sure that if we had a financial problem, the parents would rise to the occasion."
During the summer, membership swells to around 200 swimmers. Eight to 15 instructors hold workouts at the various facilities. Most receive salaries of at least $7 an hour. Halladay, who holds a full-time job in the Torrance Recreation Department, receives $1,500 a month. The club operates on a budget of $95,000 a year.
"I don't think anyone on our staff is doing this for money," Halladay said.
Jo Scudamore of Palos Verdes Estates, who has put two children through the program, explained how Halladay can attract a large staff with so few bucks.
"Nobody makes a living running a swim program. Swimming is a lifestyle," Scudamore said. "It's every year, year round. It's not like the American Youth Soccer Organization or Little League."
Kory agrees: "If you want to swim on a national level, you have to put in two to three hours a day of your time."
Halladay, a laid-back guy who resembles Dennis Miller of "Saturday Night Live," said the club keeps its swimmers because of its low-key philosophy: "We stay away from yelling. There is no group guilt here. We don't make everyone hate each other and hate the sport."