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Master’s student pools many talents

Cristy Lytalby Cristy Lytal
Samantha de Leve was selected as a Renaissance Scholar for pursuing majors in disparate fields. (USC Photo/Lillian Insalata)
Photo: Samantha de Leve was selected as a Renaissance Scholar for pursuing majors in disparate fields. (USC Photo/Lillian Insalata)

Samantha de Leve calls herself a “crazy-living urban person,” and with good reason. The soon to be graduate of USC’s Master of Arts in Specialized Journalism program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a coloratura soprano, dancer and Paralympic Games hopeful who plans to swim for Team USA in 2016.

The only child of a Dutch mother and an American father, de Leve grew up in Playa del Rey and West Hollywood, Calif. She speaks “ ’n Beetje” (a little bit) Dutch, along with French, German, Italian, Spanish and American Sign Language. She began dancing at the age of 2 and was doing gymnastics and singing in a church choir at around age 4.

She was attending the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts when she started showing signs of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder with symptoms of overly stretchy ligaments and resulting joint instability and chronic pain.

“I had a cane and a bad attitude and everybody called me ‘House,’ ” she said, referring to the misanthropic television character.

Her curiosity about medicine only made the nickname stick more. Her mother is a professor who studies drug-induced liver disease at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and de Leve “can read a liver function test like I can read Homer,” she said. She has also worked in her mother’s lab and shadowed doctors during hospital rounds.

As an undergraduate at USC, de Leve double majored in music and philosophy. She was selected as both a Renaissance Scholar for pursuing majors in disparate fields and as a Discovery Scholar for original contributions to her field — a performance of a new music commission experimenting with modern approaches to coloratura.

Last April, de Leve dislocated her hip and shoulder on the way to Passover Seder. Although she’d experienced hundreds of previous dislocations, this moment convinced her to get a wheelchair.

“For me,” she explained, “it was liberation from dislocation and subluxation — and no more rhyming.”

As a master’s student at USC, she swam in the pool as part of an ordinary low-impact fitness routine and quickly approached Paralympic times. That’s when she began training six days a week for the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and backstroke events with the Trojan Swim Club, a group of postgraduate Olympic and world champions.

“We swim in the same lane quite often, almost every day,” said Jessica Hardy, a 2012 U.S. Olympian and world-record holder in breaststroke events. “She’s the kind of person who works hard when no one’s watching and pushes herself beyond what she thought her limitations were.”

After graduation, de Leve will spend a year or two working as a writing assistant for Professor Adam Knight Gilbert, director of the early music program at the USC Thornton School of Music, before going on to pursue her PhD. She’ll be doing the work remotely from the Bay Area while her boyfriend attends the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

In other words, she’s accomplished a lot by age 23.

“My life has to be front-loaded because who knows what happens later?” she said. “I have to get everything in now. And if I get more time than I anticipated with my body working properly, then, hey, I’ll be even more awesome.”

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