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Vanderbilt's Abbey Carlson ready for new career to lift off

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Abbey Carlson once had aspirations of playing professional golf. Now, she hasn’t picked up a golf club in more than a month.

When the NCAA canceled the remainder of her final season on March 12 in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Vanderbilt senior had already come to grips that golf would not be part of her post-college plans like her younger self initially dreamed. Carlson, who will graduate with her mechanical engineering degree this spring, accepted a position with Boeing – her new dream job – and will move to Huntsville, Alabama, to begin her career as an advanced design engineer later this summer.

These days, golf is no longer her top priority.

That much is clear as Carlson waits out a pandemic and staves off boredom at her parents’ home in Lake Mary, Florida, with the sport she’s played for so long absent from her current list of essential recreational activities.

“It’s definitely odd,” Carlson said. “I’m used to being super busy like constantly.”

In high school, Carlson spent much of her time on the golf course. She was a highly sought-after recruit out of Circle Christian School in Orlando and an AJGA posterchild, on the radar of many top programs in the country. Especially the Southeast schools, where one coach even attended one of Carlson’s volleyball games her senior year in hopes that she’d commit.

Vanderbilt head coach Greg Allen admits he didn’t go to those extremes, but he did eventually convince Carlson to pick the Commodores.

“She was the biggest recruit that Vandy had ever landed,” Allen said.

But is wasn’t just the golf that lured Carlson to Nashville. The academics, specifically Vanderbilt’s engineering program, were even more enticing to a teenager who had not only already earned her pilot’s license but also built an FAA-certified airplane as a high-school junior. The instruction manual for the two-seat, single-engine RV-12, Carlson said, was “three inches thick.”

The coursework in college was equally demanding. Carlson thought about giving up several times, especially during her sophomore year when the late nights started adding up and tendonitis in her right wrist lingered.

“It seems like a lot of times she powered through days and weeks of a rigorous workload,” Allen said. “I can remember many trips where we’d get back to campus and she’d immediately take it to the engineering building to log lab hours.”

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But Carlson stuck with her demanding major, and after she interned with a local aerospace company the summer before her junior year, her goals changed: becoming an engineer became more important than earning her LPGA card. She doubled down, too, joining the Vanderbilt Aerospace Design Lab that spring.

As Carlson was building rockets with her new team, she was also delivering for her other team. She earned first-team All-SEC honors on the golf course as a junior.

“I realized that golf wasn’t a make-or-break thing for me,” Carlson said. “It took a lot of pressure off of me to feel like I constantly had to perform at my best. I feel like I had a lot more fun playing.”

Carlson started her senior year with two straight top-10 finishes, including a runner-up showing at the Mason Rudolph, Vandy’s home tournament. And though she had failed to crack the top 20 in her next four starts with the postseason drawing near, Allen wasn’t worried: “When it’s time to go, she’s going to be ready.”

But Carlson never got the chance to prove herself one last time on the biggest stages. A day after returning from the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate, Carlson and her team received word that Vanderbilt was switching to online learning and that all students had to be out of their dorms by Saturday.

Carlson spent that Wednesday saying goodbye to her non-golf friends. A day later, she had to part ways with her teammates, too, after the NCAA canceled the rest of the season.

“It felt like everything got pulled out from under me,” Carlson said. “You want that feeling of closure. You want that one more chance to go after an NCAA championship. Not getting that was hard and something that I will be sad about probably forever.”

Adding salt to the wound, Carlson never got to compete in this month’s previously scheduled launch week for the NASA Student Launch Competition, which last month canceled the face-to-face portions of its national competition (Vanderbilt had won the college/university division six of the past seven years), and her graduation commencement has been postponed until next year.

“She took that hard because out of all my years of coaching, she’s probably the one kid that just loves the school part of it more than anybody that I’ve ever coached,” Allen said.

Carlson did consider going back to school using the NCAA’s eligibility-forgiveness waiver, but ultimately, she decided that she’s ready to analyze wiring brackets for rockets and not left-to-right breaking birdies putts. (She is, however, still planning on competing in next year's Augusta National Women's Amateur.)

“I’m incredibly grateful for the four years I had playing college golf,” Carlson said, “but I’m ready to move on.”