The Courage to Never Give Up

A cancer diagnosis, a school shooting, a serious back injury – Rhea Jansen embodies what it means to be courageous, on and off the court.

March 15, 2023
Video by Zack Bagdon ('16)

Please be advised this story includes potentially disturbing topics, which may be difficult for some to read and watch.

Rhea Jansen was always meant to play volleyball. Some might argue she was even on the court since before she was born as her mother, a former GU volleyball coach, was pregnant with Rhea while coaching the team in the late '90s and early ‘00s. Now a Libero DS on the Gonzaga volleyball team and a senior only months away from graduating, Rhea shares her story that inspires us to never give up.

During a routine middle school check-up, Rhea and her family learned of an abnormality in her thyroid that led to an autoimmune disease diagnosis. Her family and doctors kept an eye on Rhea's health up until Rhea turned 16 when a tumor was found on her thyroid.

While most teenagers are learning how to drive or getting their first job, Rhea began receiving chemotherapy treatment but found motivation and strength from the support she received from her friends and family. On the final day of chemo, Rhea only had one thing on her mind: volleyball. With recruitment season underway, Rhea wasted no time getting back on the court and started playing competitively, in hopes of getting recruited to play in college.

Six months after Rhea's cancer diagnosis and with hopes of returning to normalcy in her junior year, Rhea’s world was turned upside down when a student opened fire with a gun at their Freeman High School, killing one student and injuring two other volleyball teammates. Though the memories from that day are still being processed, strength was again found in Rhea's community coming together to lean on each other to begin to heal.

Rhea works hard and plays hard so when she noticed discomfort in her back as a high school senior, she brushed this off as bad genetics. Doctors eventually alerted her to vertebrae fractures that kept her in a brace during the first half of her senior year, so she was unable to play volleyball for three months, which momentarily quieted recruitment of Rhea.

Despite these physical and emotional setbacks, Rhea never let life bench her. Her goal was always to play volleyball, and this motivated her to keep pushing forward. Rhea found her place on the court at Gonzaga University with a team that truly motivates and cares for each other, even after she had to make the decision to medically retire from playing her favorite sport during her senior year. This pivot has allowed for sharp focus on her double majors (Biology and Environmental Studies) and double minors (English and Political Science).

Rhea plans to use her education to help people by studying cancer-causing environmental pollutants and working with policy makers to illicit change. Even though it's been challenging, Rhea acknowledges that it's all been worth it because of the perspective she has gained. By building community in challenging times, looking outward to help people and by never giving up, Rhea embodies what it means to be courageous, on and off the court.

This is the second installment of our "Stories of Courage" video series. For more about how courage takes shape at Gonzaga and what life's like as a Zag, visit

  • Academics
  • College of Arts & Sciences
  • Biology
  • Environmental Studies
  • English
  • Political Science