For any dedicated athlete who chooses to continue a career in college, sports can make up the majority of his/her college experience. Penn State women’s volleyball alum Kendall Pierce vowed to never date an athlete who played the same sport as her for this reason alone.
But as the story often goes, she never expected what came next.
Before Pierce even thought about college, she became part of the USA Volleyball Pipeline Program called “High Performance.” Throughout her experience playing on junior national teams and attending various training camps, she developed close friendships with other young players from across the country — including fellow volleyball star Aaron Russell. The two players hung out in the same group while they trained, but they never kept in touch.
“We had the same small group of friends and can recall the same memories, but never each other,” Pierce said.
Years later, Pierce achieved her dream of committing to Penn State to play on the women’s volleyball team. Shortly after graduating high school, she took summer courses at Penn State to get a head start in her classwork before the school year started. Her teammate and new roommate had graduated high school early to attend Penn State for the spring semester, and the friendships she had already built with the men’s team helped Pierce meet new friends quickly when she finally arrived on campus. But little did she know Russell would also play for Penn State, and she’d soon run into him after training together so many years ago.
“Every day Aaron would be over in our dorm room hanging out with my teammate,” Pierce said. “We couldn’t stand each other at first, but oddly enough it was being crammed into a hot and small dorm room in East watching the 2012 Summer Olympics that bonded us.”
Though Pierce and Russell eventually moved past a rocky start and became friends, a relationship was the last thing on Pierce’s mind. Her main goals centered around friends, academics, and volleyball. Since she was just beginning her college career, the thought of navigating the college process in the first place was already daunting. “I said I would never date my first year of college, and especially never date a volleyball player,” Pierce said. “My whole life revolved around volleyball enough.”
The two players ended up sharing a class together during fall semester of Pierce’s freshman year and Russell’s sophomore year. Always a dedicated student, Pierce insisted on sitting in the front row so she could spend the duration of the class taking detailed notes. Russell, on the other hand, didn’t understand why Pierce would bother snagging a seat in the front and would doodle in his notebook during the lecture instead. Much to Pierce’s surprise, Russell would always manage to score higher on exams than she did. An even greater surprise came when Pierce realized she was actually beginning to fall for Russell in the very same class.
“After being assigned to work on an end-of-the-semester project together, we were spending a lot of time at the library or study hall. Sure enough, I started to have these weird feelings for him…could it be love? Most definitely,” Pierce said, “but I did everything in my power to never show him that. In fact, I was actually pretty mean to him.”
Despite Pierce’s cold shoulder, Russell himself began to develop a crush on her. Over the course of that semester, he asked her out on dates numerous times. But Pierce stayed true to her previous mindset and turned him down each time. Yet as time went by, she realized she wasn’t being true to herself by denying her own feelings any longer. “After our Christmas break, two weeks without seeing Aaron for the first time in a while, I realized how much I liked him,” Pierce said. “So after the tenth or so time of him asking me out, I finally said yes.”
Pierce called her father immediately to tell him she had her first boyfriend. The moment she told him Russell’s name, he recognized him right away — it turns out Pierce’s and Russell’s fathers had actually played volleyball together at Penn State years before.
The couple enjoyed the rest of their college careers together, as well as their time playing volleyball. During Pierce’s time at Penn State, she assisted the team in winning two national titles and two Big Ten Championship games. She also become co-captain of the 2015 team. Russell helped the men’s team get to four consecutive NCAA semifinal appearances. He finished his career at Penn State by playing on the All-Tournament team, as well as the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American team in 2014. The couple shared a whirlwind of experiences throughout their time at Penn State, and they’re forever grateful they got to spend it together.
After Russell’s senior season, he left the country to train with the USA National team in Anaheim before signing his first professional contract to play in Perugia, Italy. When Pierce finished her undergraduate career and senior volleyball season, she flew out to Italy to visit Russell. Pierce’s mother eventually ended up taking her to visit Switzerland — the country in which Pierce was born, as well as where Pierce’s father played professionally after finishing his own career at Penn State. While Pierce was enjoying her time traveling Europe, Russell was planning the perfect proposal that would finally take their relationship to the next level.
“When we returned back to Perugia, Aaron took my mom and I out for a dinner at the top of the town square with a full moon, a beautiful Italian church, and a bell tower in the background — and he proposed!” Pierce said.
Since their engagement, the couple has had an incredible time traveling the world. Pierce went to Rio de Janeiro to watch Russell compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Russell’s All-Tournament team ended up winning a bronze medal, and Pierce was there to witness it all. While Pierce undeniably met the love of her life through volleyball, the story is twofold — Russell also ended up helping Pierce stay connected to her favorite sport even after finishing her own career.
“Since then, we have had a whirlwind of experiences, and Aaron’s career has given me so many amazing opportunities,” Pierce said. “Even after finally hanging up my own Nikes and kneepads, my life still seems to revolve around that sport, and I couldn’t be giddier.”
Penn State led Pierce and Russell to incredible volleyball careers, but the university also brought them something much deeper. The couple plans to get married on July 29, 2017, and they couldn’t be happier to spend the rest of their lives together.