It was admittedly strange interviewing former Wisconsin All-American middle blocker Haleigh Nelson while we sat in the stands of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center where LSU plays volleyball.
The Tigers were warming up for a recent match and Nelson was settling into her seat with her teammates: Her LSU beach volleyball teammates.
“At first it was kind of a culture shock, with the humidity and the heat, because I’ve been in the frozen tundra for the past few years,” Nelson said. “I’m starting to get used to that and playing has been just so fun.
“And I have a whole new perspective, because for a while there I didn’t think I would ever get to do this again,” she said, motioning toward the court. “I didn’t think I was going to get to do this again.”
But here she is, enrolled at LSU, in the first year of a two-year MBA program, and knowing the fight song and cheers and hanging out with new teammates and friends.
“It’s been really interesting,” Nelson said. “I loved my time at Wisconsin and I love those girls with my whole heart and it’s been really hard not being there, watching their season from afar.
“But it’s like a whole new challenge, I only have one year to make an impact, I only have one year to get to know these girls and build that bond. So I’m trying to have a great time and enjoy every minute I have training on the beach because it’s new to me. It’s been so fun getting know a whole new group of people and learn a whole new game. It’s so cool.”
The 6-foot-4 Nelson is from Cary, N.C., where she grew up with LSU’s Cheyenne Wood, a senior defensive specialist on the indoor team who also plays for LSU’s beach team.
Wood is not the only reason Nelson is in Baton Rouge, but it didn’t hurt. The were high school and club teammates and also beach partners the few times Nelson has even played beach.
After a tremendous career at Wisconsin, Nelson could have played professionally indoors.
“I told myself all last fall I wasn’t going to think about anything but my team. I was going to give them my full attention. I wasn’t going to worry about what I was going to do after my graduation until I got there.”
Nelson had her eye on a specific internship and devoted a lot of time going after it.
But she realized she’d best have a plan B.
“I looked at other jobs and some internships and I thought about playing professionally, but it never was something I thought I would want to do,” Nelson admitted. “But I knew I had to think about it for when the time came because I knew it would be dumb not to think about it at all.”
Her Wisconsin teammate, Lauren Carlini, is playing pro in Italy. Nelson talked to Carlini about it and to Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield.
“But the more I thought about it, for some reason the less excited I was to do it. I still don’t understand that, because I love volleyball. I was not injured, I had no reason not to play, but for some reason it just didn’t appeal to me to go overseas.
“For some reason professional volleyball wasn’t in my heart and I don’t know why. Maybe one day I’ll know why, but I decided to trust my gut.”
Nelson, the most accurate hitter in Wisconsin history, knew of other players who graduated and then played beach.
“I was considering all my options. I sent out a bunch of different emails to different schools and said, ‘Hey, this is who I am and this is what I’ve done in college the past four years. I haven’t played any beach. What are my opportunities, do you think I could play?’ “
What she’d done was pretty impressive. She, Carlini and fellow seniors Tori Blake and Romana Kriskova won 113 of 137 matches in their four years, won a Big Ten title, and made it to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 or better all four years, including the national-championship match as freshmen.
“The more I thought about it and the more coaches I talked to the more I thought how cool it would be to max out my student-athlete experience,” Nelson said. “There are not a lot of other sports you can cross into.
“And something else that I was running into as I looked for jobs was that I wasn’t qualified for the types of positions that I wanted. So I figured if I could go get a graduate degree, play volleyball a year longer, I figured by the end of this experience I’d be more prepared for the work force than I would be.”
Nelson said she narrowed it down to LSU and South Carolina and visited both.
“A lot of people might think I chose LSU because one of my best friends goes here. That wasn’t necessarily the case,” Nelson said. “She was probably the reason they emailed me back, but this place, I felt like I fit in better here.
“I wanted to get my MBA and that was something that was really important to me. At the other schools I couldn’t do that, because they didn’t accept undergraduate applicants. They only accepted people who already had a job.”
Nelson, who can play one year at LSU, is in a two-year program, so this spring is her last time to be a college athlete. It wasn’t lost on her how much she has to learn on the beach, where, she said, she’s probably best at passing, something she rarely got to do for Wisconsin.
“I don’t know how good I am but hopefully I’ll be better in the end,” Nelson. “It’s also really neat because when I graduated from Wisconsin I thought I was in a role where I taught a lot of younger girls the game.
“Now, I’m older but I learn from them. They teach me everything. I don’t know anything more than they do and it’s nice to learn from somebody else.”
And it’s really fun.
“Just getting to go to practice just makes me so happy,” Nelson said. “For a while I didn’t think I didn’t get to do that again. So it’s been really awesome.”