Stephanie Musella is the loneliest swimmer at St. Bernard High School. She's also the only one.
The Roman Catholic school dropped its swimming program in 1974, forcing aquatics lovers such as Musella to look elsewhere for training.
So, every day after school and on weekends, Musella makes a 35-mile trek from her home in Westchester to the City of Industry to practice with her club team, the Industry Hills Aquatics Club.
Industry Hills, regarded as one of the top swimming clubs in Southern California, has 200 members who work out in two pools on the grounds of a local hotel. Practices last three to four hours.
The rigorous training schedule leaves Musella little time for school activities or outings with friends.
"I had to decide what's most important in my life," said Musella, a 5-foot-4, 115-pound junior distance swimmer. "Right now, swimming is very important to me. I'm sacrificing a lot to do it, but I feel it's worth it."
Most competitive swimmers belong to a club team, but they also swim for their high school during the spring. Musella is one of only three Industry Hills senior members forced to skip the high school season.
"A club team is important, but I think a high school team can be even more important," said Ed Spencer, Musella's coach at Industry Hills. "Kids get a lot more excitement and peer-group satisfaction in high school than they do on the club level.
"I'm amazed that a school the size of St. Bernard (1,300 students) doesn't have a swim team. It seems to me they would have at least 15 to 20 kids who would be interested."
But according to Jim McClune, St. Bernard's athletic director, Musella is the only athlete at the school who has expressed interest in forming a swim team.
"We really try to meet the demands of our student-athletes here," McClune said. "This year again we scheduled an informational meeting for those interested in forming a swim team. The only one who showed up was Stephanie.
"Believe me, if there was interest, we'd have a team. But when only one student wants it, it just doesn't make sense."
One problem is that St. Bernard doesn't have its own pool, which may explain why it also doesn't field a water polo team. A lack of regulation-size 25-yard pools in the area is another obstacle. McClune said Loyola Marymount University has the only available pool nearby that would be suitable for a swim team.
Musella, 16, attended public schools through the eighth grade and would have attended Westchester High, but it also doesn't field a swim team. She opted for nearby St. Bernard because of the quality of education and because classes there get out 30 minutes earlier than at Westchester, allowing her extra time to get to practices at Industry Hills.
All this has its price. Since St. Bernard is a private school, Musella's family must pay $1,650 a year in tuition. It costs another $60 a month to belong to Industry Hills.
Musella, who started her athletic career with swimming lessons at the age of 2 and has a pool in her back yard, has been making the trip to the City of Industry for three years. Her mother, Barbara, picks her up after school. Musella uses the hourlong car ride to do homework. Even though she is old enough to drive, her mother continues chauffeuring her to provide this study time.
"When you don't get home until 8 o'clock every night, you need all the extra studying time you can get," said Musella, an honors student who maintains a 3.8 grade-point average. "I know a lot of people can't study in the car, but I've learned to get used to it. It doesn't bother me at all now."
Learning to make the best of tough situations may best describe Musella's life for the past two years. An accomplished swimmer, she is constantly rearranging her schedule to keep her dream afloat.
"I have visions of swimming in college and one day going to the Olympics," said Musella, who also had to skip the Girl Scouts when growing up because of swimming conflicts. "Those goals are what keep me going day in and day out.
"What I'm doing is not easy, and there are many days when I wonder why I keep going. But I love swimming too much to stop now. Besides, it's also a great way to stay in shape."
Musella specializes in the distance races, including the 1,500- and 800-meter freestyles. She swims up to four miles a day in preparation. When she occasionally swims in a high school meet, Musella finds it easy going, since the longest event is 500 yards.
Because Coach Spencer has difficulty finding quality meets for his club swimmers at this time of year, Musella has a special arrangement to take part in some high school competition. The CIF Southern Section office allows swimmers at member schools without teams an opportunity to compete as independents so that they can post qualifying times for the section championships.