Moving thousands of miles to play professional volleyball is an interesting way to spend a gap year. But it all made sense to Kelsey Bittinger.
Unsure of her next move after graduating from Kent State University with an applied physics degree, Bittinger used her volleyball skills to turn pro for an Austrian team in 2018. A three-time first-team All-Mid-American Conference star with a 3.95 GPA, the Ohio native had options.
“It worked out really well because I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do after graduation,” said Bittinger, who was the first Kent State volleyball player to compete professionally. “I didn’t want to force myself into anything that I wasn’t going to enjoy. I figured it would be a great opportunity to take a step back and do research about medical physics and possible programs.”
Not long after she finished her senior season at Kent State, she went on a European tour with a club-level volleyball team. It was then that she met her agent, who negotiated a contract with PSVBG Salzburg in Austria. Fresh out of college with graduate school on her mind, she was off for a nine-month adventure as a European pro volleyball player.
“I’m so glad I did it,” Bittinger said. “It was so crazy to move there. So many things were way more difficult than I ever expected. But it was kind of the same thing as college, where I got very close to some teammates and made awesome friends.”
Most of her teammates were European and the coach didn’t speak English. The team’s season lasted six months, and the women usually played once a week in front of spirited crowds that Bittinger said were comparable to soccer fans with their songs and chants.
Despite language and cultural differences, the group bonded over their love of the sport.
“We were able to have this common ground of volleyball,” she said. “It was a place where I felt comfortable and excited to be pushed to get better every day.”
Having another American on the squad helped make the move easier. Paige Hill, who played at Miami (Ohio) University, had been on the Salzburg team for a year when Bittinger signed on. The two knew each other from their shared history of playing in Ohio.
“I reached out to her and asked how she liked the team and the area and if they needed a player from my position,” she said. “She basically took it from there. She talked to the coach and my agent. It was a great example of random connections that I’ve made with people from northeastern Ohio.”
Although she thought about sticking around Salzburg for another year or even playing elsewhere in Europe, one season of pro volleyball was enough. Her time off the court was spent planning a career in medical physics, and she picked the University of Toledo as the place to pursue her graduate degree.
A summer spent as a radiation therapy intern at the Cleveland Clinic in 2017 sparked her love of clinical work, and Toledo’s graduate program matched Bittinger’s interests.
“The thing that stood out to me was the clinical experience,” she said. “I know that’s a part of pretty much every program, but at Toledo, we were going to be in the clinic for almost a whole year of our two-year master’s. What excited me and what still excites me to this day is contributing to the clinic and to the patient experience behind the scenes.”
On her way to earning a Master of Science degree at Toledo in 2021, she matched for a residency at Ohio State University. When she completes the program there in June, she will start as a staff radiation physicist at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center-James Cancer Hospital.
Born near Cleveland and a graduate of two Ohio universities, she was thrilled to get accepted by Ohio State.
“Going to OSU was like a dream for me,” said Bittinger, who serves on the ABR’s Medical Physics Initial Certification Advisory Committee. “I love the city of Columbus, but I had never gotten to live there.
“I always expected to move around to undergrad or grad school. But I keep coming back to Ohio.”
With her near-term future set, including her wedding this September, Bittinger often thinks back on her days in Austria playing volleyball with strangers who became friends. She learned how to speak German to better connect with her teammates, half of whom were Austrian. She even stayed around for a couple of months after the season ended and visited other parts of the continent.
It was a unique life experience she will never regret.
“We formed great bonds and traveled all over Europe with teammates,” she said. “Being able to do that with each other and the amazing memories were the most exciting things.”