Photo: John McGillen

Pooling His Talents

USC Viterbi’s Luca Spinazzola is one of the best swimmers in the world. He’s also a full-time computer engineering and computer science major.

USC Viterbi student, Luca Spinazzola, discusses his major in Computer Science, his career aspirations to work for GoPro and his athletic goals of winning an NCAA championship in the backstroke and competing in the Olympics.

The buff blond in the black T-shirt and Hurley board shorts rolled up to the Engineering Quad on a battered black beach cruiser.

At 6 feet 4 and a muscular 210 pounds, he didn’t look like your typical USC Viterbi student. But Luca Spinazzola is, at heart, a computer science guy.

“I love finding out how stuff works,” the 21-year-old junior said.

A clue to Spinazzola’s other passion is his surfer-dude appearance.

“I just came from the Beach House,” said a tanned Spinazzola, referring to the nickname for a buddy’s pad. “It has a blow-up pool and a Slip’N Slide.”

For the All-American high school swimmer from Rhode Island whose goal is to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, perhaps a real pool would be more useful.

But this was Saturday, and Spinazzola, a member of the USC men’s swim team, already had practiced that morning. He looked forward to Sunday, the only day of the week when he doesn’t hit the pool and weight room for at least three hours of grueling training.

“Swimming and being an engineering student—they’re both really hard,” said Spinazzola, whose laidback vibe belies a competitive drive both in the classroom and in the pool.

Which explains why Spinazzola, a computer engineering and computer science major, usually gets only about four and a half hours of sleep per night.
He’s hoping all the hard work pays off by qualifying for the Olympics, ideally in one of his strongest events, the 100-meter backstroke. But he’s also angling for a career in computer engineer and interned this summer at D. W. Morgan Company.

“I don’t think I want to just swim [forever],” Spinazzola said.

Growing up, however, swimming was his world—as it was for his three siblings, Chiara, 23, and twins Angelica and Bianca, 19. All enjoyed great success in the sport. Spinazzola started hitting the pool at age 6 in his hometown of Narragansett, R.I., whose population of about 16,000 swells to more than twice that in the summer as tourists flock to its beaches.

He started ranking high in races beginning at age 8 and swam for various club teams through his early teens. In high school, Spinazzola set several state swimming records. He was that rare swimmer who excelled at shorter races like the 100-meter backstroke as well as the longer events.

Swimming for the Trojans, Spinazzola only has gotten better. In March, at the NCCA National Championships, Spinazzola swam a 45.13 in the 100-yard backstroke, more than 3 seconds faster than his time in high school—and a record for USC. The time made him the 18th fastest of all time for that event and the 16th-fastest American. The American record is 44.07.

Spinazzola credits his improved swimming in part to getting in better shape. He has put on more than 25 pounds of mostly muscle since freshman year.

“I wouldn’t be swimming if I didn’t want to be the best,” he said.

As for his studies, Spinazzola is pulling down an upper-division GPA of 3.43.

Ted Faber, a computer scientist and instructor at the USC Viterbi Information Sciences Institute, noted that Spinazzola “works really, really hard. He’s a very motivated and diligent student.”

After his Slip’N Slide session, Spinazzola planned to turn his attention to an assignment about adding functionality to a computer operating system. Then he had to get cracking on a group project for an upper-division business school writing class.

When he does find some free time, Spinazzola likes to surf, a sport he learned growing up in Rhode Island.

“I have to bug my friends to borrow a car since I don’t have one,” said Spinazzola, whose old beach cruiser has a rusty chain and worn-out handgrips.

As USC, Spinazzola gives high marks to the academic program and professors. “You definitely learn a lot here,” he said.

The dual-nationality Spinazzola said he may swim for Italy, his father’s homeland, if he qualifies for the Olympics.

“The U.S. has the best swimmers in the world,” he said. “I would love to swim for the U.S., but I don’t know. I just want to compete in the Games. And I have one shot to make it.”