Rhea Jansen

Gonzaga volleyball freshman Rhea Jansen (No. 14) has found a role in her first year for the Bulldogs despite battling lingering back issues.

She may be a coach’s kid, but nothing has come easy for Rhea Jansen. To say anything less would be an understatement.

The freshman defensive specialist playing at Gonzaga seems meant to be. Eva Windlin-Jansen, Rhea’s mother, was GU volleyball’s head coach from 1996-2001, a stint during which she coached GU’s current head coach Diane Nelson. She eventually departed the program to coach at Freeman High School in Rockford, Washington, where Jansen attended and played volleyball. Nelson herself coached Jansen in club volleyball as far back as when she was 14 years old. 

“She thinks a lot like a coach already,” said GU assistant coach Drew Pascua. “She has a very high IQ when it comes to volleyball.”

But even with the GU background, it was far from a sure thing that she’d ever be a Zag. Despite applying to the school and some mutual interest, she didn’t play a position that was a huge recruiting need for Nelson’s team.

It wasn’t until the coaches saw her playing while scouting other recruits that they realized there was something special.

“She was just very aware of her position, how to play it, how to lead,” Nelson said. “She was doing things that we weren’t seeing in our gym … It was unanimous, like, this kid’s a rock star.” 

Even then, it wasn’t until late in spring 2019 that Jansen visited campus and decided she wanted to come play at GU as a walk-on, after choosing against playing at Duke University. Jansen's self-sufficiency stood out to Nelson. 

“[She] doesn’t need anybody’s help,” Nelson said. “Mom didn’t come on a visit, mom wasn’t interested in that. It’s Rhea’s thing. And that’s how she’s always been.”

Perhaps that independence stems from experiences that forced Jansen to grow up quickly. 

In high school, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer that required her to undergo chemotherapy, which sidelined her for an extended period. 

“[It] was a shock," she said. "I was perfectly healthy until I was 16, and it was a total fluke how we found it."

But she credited much of her resilience to her support system, a group of friends and family that made sure there wasn’t a day her hospital room was empty. Her sisters took time off work to see her, flying to Spokane from Europe, an experience that she said brought them even closer together.

Through group fundraising efforts, the Freeman community and her club team were able to purchase her a wig and lower her medical expenses significantly.

Volleyball returned as quickly as it could. On the day of her last dose of chemotherapy, she was already on the court practicing with her club team. With a million other things on her mind, she learned to lose herself in the game. 

“I remember just being like, ‘Wow, I feel normal again. I forget that I don’t have hair, that I have this port in my arm right now and I have to be on so many medications and all this,’” she said. “For three hours, I forget about everything else: my back, my illnesses, school and stress.”

Three weeks later, she was playing in the national tournament, still without hair from the radiation. The looks from strangers didn’t matter to her. What mattered was volleyball, something she doesn’t take for granted anymore.

“It puts a lot of things in perspective,” Jansen said. “I definitely changed how I was approaching volleyball. I was super serious … I’m super positive now, but I used to treat it like a job.” 

Even now, she still has her fair share of setbacks. Jansen’s freshman season has been largely oriented around managing a lingering back injury that has sometimes limited her ability to practice. Before the season, the athletic and training staff went back and forth on whether she’d require surgery, a cortisone shot or even a redshirt, but ultimately decided against it.

That decision often means she must play and practice through pain, while paying close attention to her body to make sure she doesn’t overwork herself.

“She’s no stranger to adversity … I know that’s a part of who she is,” Nelson said. “It’s like, ‘nothing is too much for me.’”

Even though she had difficulties with practice at times, Jansen got the chance to prove her worth early in the season, when the coaching staff decided to bring her to Washington, D.C., for the Pentagon Invitational tournament, knowing the risks involved. 

“We took her with us knowing she could make one hard move and be done,” Nelson said. “But [the decision] had more to do with the head on her shoulders than it did her volleyball skills.”

In a tight match against the Naval Academy, Jansen hadn’t played at all, but the coaches put her on the court to serve the last two balls. With the Bulldogs down 24-23 in her first appearance, Jansen had to serve crucial points coming off the bench cold.

The pressure suddenly on her, she responded deftly, generating an ace and a huge block to help secure the win. 

“You never know how they’re going to respond when the lights are on,” Pascua said. “And she came in and played great ... She definitely took advantage of the time she had out there.”

Her teammates reveled in Jansen’s success — maybe even more than she did.

“Each of us and her teammates just went nuts, because she’s just this skinny little girl that’s in a Division I volleyball match against big time players who gets called off the bench to come serve,” Nelson said. “That’s a great role for her. And she owned it.” 

Being a walk-on is little more than a title, as Nelson foresees a significant role on the team in Jansen’s future. The coaching staff reiterated that it doesn’t matter whether someone walks on or not. If they can produce, they will play. 

“I can’t wait to see when she gets a little stronger, more confident in her contribution, lets things roll off her back,” Nelson said. “She’s pretty hard on herself but we’re working on that. I think that’s how she’s been since the first day I met her.”

A biology major with a minor in English, Jansen aspires to go to medical school after she graduates and study to become a pediatric oncologist. Inspired by her own oncologist, she wants to help cancer patients who are going through what she experienced. 

"The way she's committed to academics — she's committed to volleyball the same way," Nelson said. "I can't wait to just keep seeing her grow."

Connor Gilbert is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @connorjgilbert.

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