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Creative Force: Savanah Leaf

Creative Force: Savanah Leaf

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2024 edition of Hurricanes Magazine.

She tries not to get too caught up in it all, but on those rare instances when Savanah Leaf lets herself think about the twists and turns her life has taken – and the milestones she’s hit along the way – she can’t help but wonder what might be next.

The former Hurricanes volleyball standout has had the honor of representing her country on one of sports’ biggest stages, the Olympics. She knows how it feels to be nominated for a Grammy Award. And last year, Leaf had the opportunity to show her debut film “Earth Mama” at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the United States.

Olympian. Grammy nominee. Award-winning filmmaker.

That’s not exactly a bad resume to put together before one’s 30th birthday, but that’s exactly what Leaf has done.

And the multi-faceted, multi-talented Miami alumna isn’t about to settle on any of her laurels.

“It feels like I’ve lived multiple lives,” said Leaf, who was named the 2014 ACC Player of the Year during her time with the Hurricanes’ volleyball program. “When people ask me about being an athlete, it feels like a whole different lifetime ago. Even playing in the Olympics, when people ask me about that, I was 18 [years old]. I was so young and fresh-eyed. I don’t know if I fully grasped where I was. I don’t even have that many pictures of it, which is crazy. … It feels like on the day-to-day, I’m just really living in the present. … I’m happy with what I’ve been able to achieve and with the people I’ve been able to achieve it with, but I’m always thinking on what’s next. I don’t really dwell on everything for too long because it feels so distant to what’s next.”

Leaf may not know what twists or turns await on her journey, but there’s no doubt there’s already plenty been plenty for her to celebrate, including finding a calling that’s allowed her to thrive creatively, all while utilizing a good number of skills she acquired as an athlete.

The filmmaker, who was born in London but grew up in northern California where she discovered a knack for playing both basketball and volleyball, has long worked to balance her love of sports with her creative side.

Leaf’s mother, Alison – an animator at Pixar Animation Studios – made it a point to nurture her daughter’s creativity, introducing her to different kinds of music, taking her to museums throughout California and making sure Leaf always had a paintbrush in her hands.

As Leaf grew older, though, finding a balance between her creative passions and her athletic endeavors became increasingly difficult.

When she enrolled at San Jose State as a freshman in 2011, she quickly realized her newfound responsibilities as a college volleyball player made it nearly impossible for her to pursue a degree in the school’s film department.

After a year at San Jose State, Leaf made the decision to transfer to Miami.

Before coming to Coral Gables, though, she was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to suit up for Great Britain’s national women’s volleyball team and compete in the 2012 London Olympics.

It was an opportunity that still means the world to her.

“That was a huge dream of mine, and it became a reality when I was 18 years old,” Leaf said. “Representing my home country, there’s nothing like it. In a way, I had kind of succeeded in that thing I wanted most from sports early on and it taught me a lot about your pursuit of your dreams, how to work in really tough environments, how to be challenged and speak up in really difficult situations and the pressure … I learned how to cope with pressure.”

Great Britain didn’t medal in those Games, but Leaf brought that experience from London with her to Miami and quickly established herself as one of the top players in the ACC.

As a sophomore, the outside hitter recorded double-digit kills in 10 matches and finished the season second on the team with 22 service aces. A year later, she started all 31 matches and totaled 442 kills, a number good enough to rank seventh-most in program history in a single season. She earned a spot on both the 2013 All-ACC First Team and the 2013 All-ACC Academic Team.

Leaf only got better during her senior season.

She again started all 31 matches for the Hurricanes, but this time, totaled 502 kills, good enough for third best in a single season at Miami. She also finished the season as the ACC leader in kills-per-set with 4.65 and notched 13 double-doubles, including one in her final match in orange and green when she posted 20 kills and 10 digs in an NCAA Tournament loss to Florida.

Leaf was named the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, earned a spot on the All-ACC First Team, was named a second-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association and was a Senior CLASS Award finalist.

She graduated from Miami with a psychology degree and then opted to pursue a professional career, playing in both Puerto Rico and Turkey. She continued trying to connect with her creative side during that time, often taking photographs of her teammates or shooting video of their team activities.

Still, while she enjoyed the high-level competition she faced both at Miami and in the professional realm, there were challenges and Leaf acknowledges there were moments her mental health suffered.

“Honestly, it was one of the toughest times of my life from an emotional standpoint because I didn’t have all the kinds of outlets that I have now, from a creative standpoint, but also from an emotional support standpoint,” Leaf said. “You’re in your teen years and your early 20s and I feel like during that time, you’re on this emotional roller coaster. … You’re in one place, you’re trying to figure [it] out and there’s so much you can do in this life. You’re not limited and so in a way, it kind of built me up by really making it difficult for me.”

Things got even more difficult when, during her professional career, Leaf suffered a back injury that sidelined her for a year.

During that time, she reached out to different commercial and music video production companies in her native England and before long, found work as what she described an “assistant’s assistant.”

That opened the door for her to reignite her creative drive and before long, she began working on her own projects.

“It was this huge journey for me, but I just knew I couldn’t go into what everybody else does, like a regular day job,” Leaf said. “That’s so not my personality. … I was trying to figure out a way to break away from this kind of day-to-day job and finding my own kind of voice in the world and my creative outlet and that’s kind of what this ended up being. I kind of forced it upon myself, which was terrifying. But I feel like it’s worked out.”

That might be an understatement.

Leaf dove into her new career with gusto, doing photography work and eventually, began directing various projects, including music videos for artists including Common, Jorja Smith, Swedish singer and songwriter Mabel and Gary Clark, Jr.

She also tapped into her background as an athlete and collaborated on projects with the likes of adidas, Nike, and Fila, among others.

Her directorial work on the music video for Clark’s “This Land” earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Music Video in 2020 and helped set the stage for her work on “Earth Mama,” her feature-film directorial debut.

The film – which not only premiered at Sundance, but also won also won the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature in 2023 – centers on the life of Gia, a pregnant single mother in the Bay Area who has two children in the foster care system.

It was an incredibly personal project for Leaf, who has an adopted sister and grew up without her father’s presence in her life.

“The story is roughly based on my relationship to my own sister and her birth mother,” Leaf said. “When I was 16 years old, my mom adopted my sister and she’s been a huge part of my life. That was part of it, and also, just me being a child … I never knew my father growing up, so there’s this kind of yearning to understand a parent that’s not around and why they’re not around. Is it because they don’t love you? Or is it because there’s some huge decision they have to make? What’s that reasoning? I really wanted to explore that.”

While working on “Earth Mama” – and some of her directorial projects before that – Leaf couldn’t help but notice some of the similarities between filmmaking and competing as an athlete.

Her experiences at Miami, and beyond, she said, helped her navigate more than a few of the challenges she’s encountered on set.

“If you watched me as a player, I loved to kind of be in pressure situations. I loved being in a game. I loved the intuition you relied on, your way of finding creative plays in these weird scenarios that you’d find yourself in,” Leaf said. “That’s what it’s like being a filmmaker. You have all these stresses in this short amount of time, and you have to come up with these quick decisions. So, being an athlete versus being a filmmaker, there’s so many parallels.”

Her experience in Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences has also made a difference, she said.

“I think a lot of people, when they think about filmmakers, they think you have to go to school for filmmaking, but I’m almost more grateful to have had a psychology degree because filmmaking is really about the study of human behavior and our social interactions, which is psychology,” Leaf said. “And filmmaking is also about working in a team environment, getting the best out of all these people and their different skill sets. … I find art school can be kind of limiting in the idea of it, whereas psychology is really just about studying human behavior and social interactions. I really loved that and I still kind of think of it when I’m studying for a film. A lot of time, I’m doing research around human behavior and how people are interacting with one another. That becomes a lot of what writing a script is about.”

Leaf doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that even throughout all her success, there have been challenging moments.

But her experience as a student-athlete and her persistence have opened doors for her and changed her life.

And she’s confident the Hurricanes student-athletes navigating their own careers today in Coral Gables can have similar experiences.

“I think what you learn as an athlete can really be transferred into so much in this world,” Leaf said. “The most important thing, for me, is to not really give up and be persistent. I really feel like it’s so easy to just take the job someone gives you and just do it. But if you have an inkling to do something else, don’t be afraid of taking that chance and be persistent. That skill set you’ve learned as an athlete, of getting better and better and more and more talented is a really incredible skill. Not everyone has it and not everyone has the ability to work as hard as you. Look at that and think of it as an asset … Use that training and that willingness to be persistent and resilient in whatever you want to do. I know that sounds corny, but I really do believe we have a skill set that not everyone has, and we should really utilize it as much as possible.”