MODESTO, Calif. – In many ways, Chandra Levy was an ordinary 24-year-old — a good student with dreams of an FBI career, a fitness nut, a bookworm with a vivacious side, too.
Her disappearance more than two months ago, however, would let the world in on an alleged affair with her hometown congressman and turn her into a subject of round-the-clock news coverage.
It's a far cry from the girl her friends and family know, a student who asked a lot of questions and loved to travel abroad with her family.
"I taught her not to be afraid like I was of life, which might have been a bad decision," her mother, Susan Levy, told The Associated Press at the family home Friday.
She took her daughter whitewater rafting, taught her to ski and, one summer, enrolled her in a challenging outdoor course where she was the only girl among 14 boys.
"They all asked her, `What are you doing here?'" Susan Levy said. "She answered, 'My mom made me do this, and I don't want to be here.'"
Five boys quit because scaling the walls and hanging from ropes was too hard, but Chandra Levy stuck with it, learning about herself, the opposite sex and trust, her mother said.
It was this strong-willed, independent woman whom Susan and Robert Levy sent east in September for an internship at the federal Bureau of Prisons, the final step toward her master's degree in public administration at the University of Southern California.
She was excited to combine her studies in public policy with her desire to work in the criminal justice system. And she was thrilled to be living on the East Coast for the first time.
"Chandra and I would go out and do all the touristy things," said Jennifer Baker, a graduate student who went to Washington with Levy.
One of their first visits was to the office of their local congressman, where they had their picture taken with Rep. Gary Condit. He took them to the House gallery to watch him vote.
Baker wound up as a Condit intern, and Levy often came by the office to meet her for lunch.
As far as Baker knew, Levy never saw Condit again. Levy told her she had a boyfriend in the FBI but never said his name.
She later told family members she was having an affair with Condit, a relationship that police sources say the married, 53-year-old congressman later confirmed.
With hope fading that Levy will be found alive, friends and family members awkwardly share memories of Levy in the past tense. They catch themselves and snap back to the present tense to project hope.
"She was an awesome writer," recalled Lisa Bracken, 24, a friend of Levy's from high school. "I mean, she IS an awesome writer. Think positive about it."
Bracken, who works at a fitness club in Modesto, said that the two loved to work out and that Chandra was an exercise fanatic. She ran on the treadmill and lifted weights.
Men would flirt with her, but she dismissed them with a smile or a laugh and continued with her routine, said Sondra Borja, a friend from the gym.
Much of her youth was spent in Modesto, where the family moved with her oncologist father 21 years ago after living in Virginia and Ohio.
In her neighborhood of spacious homes 80 miles east of San Francisco, she could be seen astride one of her mother's horses, headed out to the peach and almond orchards that once dominated this stretch of farmland that is quickly growing into a bedroom community.
In high school, Levy was an unexceptional student who probably stood out most for wearing her police Explorer Scout uniform to class.
Her grades improved as she helped out around the police department and after a bout of mononucleosis, which forced her to miss school for two months. Her parents said she returned to classes more focused. She began writing for the school paper and dreamed of becoming a sportswriter.
At San Francisco State University, she studied journalism and worked as a reporter and sports editor at the Golden Gater, the twice-a-week student paper.
John Burks, chairman of the journalism department, remembered her as a talented writer and vocal student who earned good grades and participated in class discussions.
Some colleagues at the Golden Gater found her aloof and distant. After sending the paper to press, they often repaired to a watering hole. But Levy didn't join in, said Jakub Mosur, a free-lance photographer who was photo editor at the time.
Mosur said he developed a friendship with her because they took an international relations class together and shared "kind of a computer geek connection."
During her undergraduate years, she often went home on the weekends to see her family and Mark Steele, a Modesto police officer who was 10 years older. When he split up with her, it left her heartbroken but wiser about love.
"She's not the type of girl who thinks that any guy she goes out with she's going to spend the rest of her life with," said her brother, 19-year-old Adam Levy. "She's not one who would be obsessed with someone. She's wise with relationships."