POCATELLO, Idaho — Sophomore outside hitter Abby Jensen has made an immediate impact on the Bengal volleyball program. The former WAC freshman of the year transferred to Idaho State prior to the start of the 2016 season, and she's already making waves in the Big Sky as she ranks sixth in both kills and points per set. She's strong and confident; a byproduct of growing up partially deaf, she said.
"My parents raised us to believe [being deaf] wouldn't hold us back from anything," Jensen said. "I don't think it really held me back from anything, and I think I was still able to participate in everything and grow up normal…I'm sure it's made me stronger in some ways and more confident."
Jensen's older brother was born deaf, so when she was born her parents had her tested immediately. The results: Abby was partially deaf, and by the time she was two months old had fitted hearing aids to help.
"I hear best out of my right ear," Jensen said. "I hear a lot more than my left. My left ear, I don't get a whole lot out of."
But the Roseville, California, native has never viewed her hearing as a disability or anything but normal, so it wasn't a surprise to anyone when she began to excel in sports. In high school, Jensen earned first-team all-conference all four years in addition to earning four straight MVP titles before heading to Utah Valley to become its first ever WAC Freshman of the Year. Jensen was a force to be reckoned with, and Lynn Boren, head coach of the Deaf National Volleyball team, took notice.
"They contacted me," Jensen said. "I was kind of iffy about it for a while, just because it's different and I had never really thought about it."
For a player to qualify to play for the Deaf National Team, they must have at least a 55 decibel hearing loss, which equates to a moderate level of hearing loss, and they cannot use any hearing aids during play. According to Boren, at least seven or eight players out of the roster of 14 have a hearing ability of about 55 decibels, whereas only about three or four are profoundly deaf.
"International Deaf Olympics Worldwide has an agreement that anyone who has hearing loss of decibel 55 and over can take advantage of the lower decibel with the use of hearing aids," Boren said. "So, she had to turn them off."
For Jensen, this opened up a whole new world. Up until last summer, she had never been without the ability to hear due to the use of her hearing aids. This was the first time she had to compete completely without the use of her hearing aids.
"A lot of [the players] play for an all-deaf school, so they play without their hearing aids all the time," Jensen said. "Whereas in my case, I never had, so I was put in this situation; I was uncomfortable and I couldn't wear my hearing aids at all when I played or practiced or anything like that. Otherwise, you'd be disqualified from the tournament as a team…It kind of made me realize that I am lucky in a way just to have hearing aids and have this ability. It's kind of cool."
As uncomfortable as she may have been, Jensen helped Team USA to an undefeated run through the Pan American Deaf Women's Regional Volleyball Championship in Washington, D.C. in July, finishing with 44 points (third on team) and 38 kills (second on team). Team USA swept Brazil in the championship match 25-16, 25-19 and 25-16 to clinch a spot in the 23rd Deaflympics July 18-30, 2017 in Samsun, Turkey.
About two weeks later, Jensen and Team USA found themselves in another championship match, this time at the World Deaf Volleyball Championships hosted by Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. And once again, Team USA swept its adversary, defeating Ukraine 25-19, 25-11 and 25-21. Jensen earned Best Receiver honors for her serve receive ability, along with a shiny new gold medal.
"I didn't realize how big of a deal it was when I got there," Jensen said. "I'm not super familiar with the whole thing, but it was awesome. It was really cool and a great experience, and it's something that I'll keep for a long time and I'll remember. It's an experience I won't forget."
As for Idaho State, Jensen has fit in nicely with the Bengals since arriving in early August for preseason camp, and for the six-foot outside hitter, it's business as usual.
"The team has been great with [my hearing]," Jensen said. "It hasn't been an issue at all, and especially Rick [Reynolds] has been really good with it and extra cautious making sure I can hear everything he says."
"We haven't had to make many adjustments due to [Abby's] level of adaptation to how we do things, and in those moments where it's time to communicate, she's pretty smart and has found ways to make sure she's getting the information she needs," Head Coach Rick Reynolds said. "She's made a huge impact on our program as a leader, from a skills perspective, but also that's who she is. She's an amazing person, amazing teammate, works hard and brings it every day. That's what you expect and what you want. Her transition has been amazing."
For Jensen, it's just about playing volleyball. Whether it be for the Deaf National Team against Brazil or against the University of Utah to open the 2016 season, for her, it's all the same.
"The way I saw it was that regardless of the disabilities you have or don't have, volleyball is the same all around," Jensen said. "Whether you can hear on the court or not, you'd be surprised at whether you're talking a whole lot on the court, volleyball is the same. It's the same game. It's kind of cool to have seen that firsthand."