WUHAN, China, –
As her T-6 jet descended lower in the November sky toward the tarmac, the disappointment hit her hard, with more force than one of her trademark volleyball spikes.
Air Force Captain Abby Hall had undergone rigorous flight training. She had passed the necessary physical and vision requirements for Air Force pilot training. She had already earned her private pilot’s license as a teenager, tasting the skies while flying Cessnas over her hometown of Louisville.
Hall suffered from nausea now, however, when she flew her jet inverted. She had tried to weather through, hoping her body would eventually adjust.
Then a second lieutenant, she had chased this dream for as long as she could remember. Her grandfather, Bob Moore, piqued her interest in aviation and space travel as a child with model airplanes and taking her to air shows and museums. She attended space camp seven times as a child. Because of those symptoms, she could not complete pilot training.
The news dashed Hall’s dream of flying C-130s. As she landed on the Columbus Air Force Base flight line, she faced the difficult reality of re-evaluating her dreams.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Hall, now a 29-year old acquisitions officer.
She turned to her family for support and leaned on her advisors. She talked to her fiancé, Jonathan Chancey, also an Air Force officer, who encouraged her to pursue a career in acquisitions or engineering.
He also told her to stay active and do the things she loved, namely, volleyball.
“He told me ‘keep playing volleyball because you could be on the Air Force team now and not be hindered by training,’” Hall said.
Hall decided not to let her disappointment bury her. She gathered her anger and sadness and piled it into learning her new career field and playing the game she loved, the sport she had competed in gyms across Kentucky and the U.S. since her dream of becoming a pilot started. Volleyball never left her; she had continued to play pickup games at Columbus’ fitness center.
In 2014, she began volunteer coaching at Wright State University. But she didn’t see the court in a competitive setting until 2015 as she transitioned to her new career field in Air Force acquisitions. During her sophomore year at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Maj. Jason Glenn, one of her ROTC instructors told her about the All-Air Force and All Armed Forces programs after seeing one of her collegiate matches, it was there that she learned she could play volleyball beyond college.
And through that team she could compete on the international stage for the U.S. Armed Forces volleyball team, on a stage that seemed like a pipe dream while growing up in Kentucky.
DIGGING INTO THE GAME
As a child she’d practice serves until her eyes became heavy, bouncing the ball against the side of her house. She played the game at family picnics with her aunt, who drew her to the sport at an early age. Outside of school practices, Hall often played alone, simulating spikes and serves against the garage of her family’s two-story home in suburban Louisville.
She grew up admiring famed Olympic beach volleyball duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh and watched them win back-to-back-to-back gold medals at the summer Olympics.
Hall developed a passion for the sport and a stubborn competitiveness at an early age. In the early 2000s Louisville grew into a recruiting hotbed for women’s volleyball, with one of the top programs in the country at the University of Louisville. But the Cardinals showed little interest in recruiting her. Many of the top prep programs called the Derby City home, including nationally-ranked Assumption, Sacred Heart, and Mercy Academy.
Her high school coaches and even her club team relegated her to the second squad rotation, while her teammates earned invites to U.S. National Team pipeline tryouts.
“So that always challenged me to work harder than my peers,” Hall said.
Hall played at one of the best high school programs in the state of Kentucky at Mercy Academy. Despite her noted progress as an outside hitter, she often rode the bench, in favor of more highly recruited players on Mercy.
She had known by her sophomore year at Mercy that she wanted to become a military pilot. She had earned her private pilot’s license by the time she left for college.
The Air Force Academy and West Point showed recruiting interest so did other smaller D1 programs, however, it was an NAIA school that captured her attention.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, located in Daytona Beach, FL, seemed like the perfect institution to launch her career. She could study at the No. 1 aviation and aerospace engineering schools in the country, participate in the top ROTC program in the nation, and continue to play the game she loved.
Daytona Beach houses vacation and tourist attractions in Florida’s Volusia County. The World’s Most Famous Beach draws countless tourists for its scenic beaches and 200-mile per hour NASCAR races at Daytona International Speedway. In the skies, some of the nation’s most promising students train and study, taking the first step in their aviation careers.
It didn’t take Hall long to make an impact at ERAU as a freshman, earning The Sun Conference’s Newcomer of the Year award, averaging 3.62 kills per contest (second in the conference) and she led The Sun Conference with 0.71 aces per set. She followed that up by earning the conference’s player of the year award in 2009, 2010, and 2011 and led the Eagles to a 55-1 record in conference play during her four years at the school. By the time she left Daytona, she ranked as the school’s all-time leader in kills, attempts, and points and ranked in the top 10 in attack percentage, digs and serve aces. All records that still hold today.
“She was powerful; she could bring some power behind the ball,” said Embry-Riddle volleyball coach Joslynn Gallop. “And creative … She had a very good volleyball knowledge, very good base volleyball knowledge: the IQ of how to score the points or how to defend the opponent and to work with her teammates and get everybody going.”
Hall would later earn an induction into Embry-Riddle’s Hall of Fame in 2017. Her 2012 graduation from Embry-Riddle wouldn’t mark the end of her volleyball career.
EVOLVING HER GAME
Competing with the All-Air Force team since 2015, Hall’s game would evolve in ways she had not imagined in college. She became more versatile; she worked on her blocking to become an undersized middle. She spent countless hours fine-tuning her touch to become a setter. She grew in value to her team, playing every position except libero.
“She’s a great competitor. She’s really versatile,” said Armed Forces teammate and Army Capt. Justine Stremick. “She’s one of those rare people that can play any position and play it well.”
Hall captained the U.S. Armed Forces team win silver at the CISM World Volleyball Championships in 2017, held by the International Military Sports Council, the team’s highest finish in 23 years. The team also brought home the Fair Play award, a first for the Armed Forces Volleyball program. She also earned the Air Force’s Athlete of the Year Award.
But Wuhan would be different.
After Hall led the All-Air Force team to a 6-0 record in 2019, she made the All-Armed Forces team where she returned to outside hitter. The Americans dropped decisive losses to the host Chinese and Brazil.
Here, the Americans would take on a lofty challenge: facing Olympic-caliber athletes – with only 10 days to train and prepare.
“They were just better than us,” she said of the Brazilian and Chinese military volleyball teams. The U.S. Armed Forces volleyball team had to settle for fifth place after going 2-3 in Wuhan.
Still Hall and her teammates had their moments, none bigger than the teams’ second matchup with Canada. After dropping their first match to the Canadians Oct. 20, the U.S. women rebounded behind Hall’s match-high 23 kills.
With razor precision, Hall slapped shots along the sideline. She sent the ball past the Canadian players’ outstretched arms, hitting shots along the baseline, beyond her opponent’s reach.
When Hall’s game clicks, her shots can be almost impossible to defend.
“Abby tends to come through in those moments when there’s chaos happening and we need somebody to do something smart with the ball,” said coach Van Vark.
“Abby has a really keen awareness on what her shots can do, which I think gives her a significant advantage from a competitive perspective,” he said.
Hall hasn’t stepped into a cockpit in the six years since her disappointment during flight training in Mississippi. She hasn’t ruled out a return to flying recreationally as a civilian. But she has found great pride in acquisitions, a critical job in the Air Force.
She has returned to the state where she blossomed on the volleyball court, as an acquisitions officer at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. There she writes contracts, holds meetings with program managers, talks with accountants and engineers to help deliver critical and major weapons systems or platforms, including ones similar to the C-130J.
While she didn’t realize her dream of flying C-130s, she has worked for the C-130J’s program office to help the Air Force and Coast Guard acquire additional aircraft. She has worked in the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile Program Office and now has a desk in the Aerial Target Systems Program Office where she focuses on developing threat representative aerial targets for our warfighters to test and train against.
‘AS LONG AS I CAN’
Hall sat in a vacant section of the athletes’ bright dining facility on a warm night in Wuhan. Living among athletes from more than 80 nations, Hall has long extended her dream of playing volleyball beyond her childhood expectations, by competing at the 2019 Military World Games. The Kentuckian answered questions about her volleyball future with a nervous laugh.
Hall, who turns 30 next year, plans to once again compete for a spot on the All-Air Force team; players must try out each year to remain with the program.
At her last assignment, she spent time spreading knowledge of the World Military Games, speaking to other volleyball players and fellow athletes at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
With younger airmen competing for spots on the All-Air Force team, Hall must continue to prove herself … something she has grown familiar with.
“I would love to play volleyball as long as I can, I love the sport,” she said.