In Alyssa Jensen’s house in St. Louis, there are several trees — but there’s one in particular that catches your eye, located in the main hearth room. It’s adorned with fluorescent purple lights and is decorated with pieces of torn-up T-shirts. The tree was brought into the house the year Gregg Jensen, Alyssa’s father, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the lights were added because purple is the color associated with the disease. A year after Gregg’s initial diagnosis, his family began the tradition of annually writing how many months it’s been on a T-shirt and ripping it up to add onto the tree, as a reminder and celebration of his survival.
Alyssa found out about her father’s diagnosis after getting picked up from her first day of fifth grade. Gregg had a biopsy that day after he began experiencing health concerns, but no one knew what to expect. As soon as they reached home, Gregg and his wife Linda sat Alyssa and her older sister Brittany down and gave them the news: Their dad had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
The doctors estimated that Gregg had just six months to live.
“Is he going to see me graduate from middle school? Is he going to see me graduate from high school?”- Alyssa Jensen
“Once we got past the tears and everything, it was ‘From here on out, we’re going to live everyday as much as we can, without thinking about what’s going to happen in the future,’ ” Gregg says.
But, even after the tears dissipated, Alyssa couldn’t help but think about the grim prospect of a future without her father.
“Is he going to see me graduate from middle school? Is he going to see me graduate from high school?” Alyssa recalls worrying at the time.
Eleven years later, Gregg’s affliction has become ingrained into Alyssa’s reality. He has been treated with a wide array of medicines, which have helped him remain stable since being diagnosed in 2005. His tumor is slow-growing, and although it hasn’t shrunk, it hasn’t become unmanageable either. But even to this day, every time she sees him in the stands of her volleyball matches, the same thoughts still linger.
“Is he going to see me play in college? Is he going to see me graduate? And obviously a girl’s thing: Is he going to walk me down the aisle?” Alyssa wonders.
Despite the adversity that’s come from Gregg’s condition, it has brought him closer to his daughter.
Alyssa was born into a volleyball family, so her involvement in the sport began very early. Her mother Linda played collegiate volleyball at the University of Oklahoma and coached Brittany when Alyssa was young. With her mother and sister occupied with coaching, the hyper-energetic, 4-year-old Alyssa would play tip-drills with Gregg, using a Volley-lite — a lighter substitute for a volleyball — in the back of the gym. It was Alyssa’s first introduction to the sport, and she was enamored.
Over the next several years, Gregg followed Alyssa’s volleyball journey every step of the way. As Alyssa rose up the ranks, Gregg could be spotted at most of her games with his camera, videotaping his young phenom.
“I didn’t miss anything,” Gregg says. “Since my wife was coaching my other daughter, I had to take (Alyssa). I did the videotaping, so I’d videotape everything she did in soccer or volleyball.”
After the initial diagnosis, the moments Gregg spent with Alyssa, taking her to practice or in between competitions, became more meaningful. With the prospect of his time being limited, Gregg resolved to be at every practice and every qualifier.
“That may have been maybe a little too much — some people might think that — but she liked it,” Gregg says. “We had a lot of time in cars to talk about the future and what she liked and music and that kind of thing. I had a little influence on that, but she won’t say that now.”
Despite all the support and encouragement Alyssa received from her father and the rest of her family, it wasn’t until her adolescence that she developed internal affirmation of her abilities. When Alyssa was 13, Gregg remembers, she tried out to be a setter for a competitive local club team. During the first day of tryouts, the team’s main setter told Alyssa — who was eager to play the same position — that she wasn’t a setter. It was unsettling to hear, but Alyssa learned to develop thick skin.
“Throughout my life, there’s been a lot of people who have always been telling me that I’m too short, or I’m this, I’m that,” Alyssa says. “Kind of knocking me down. In high school, I really gained the confidence that I stopped listening to what they said.”
Alyssa was ultimately selected to be the setter for only the club’s second team, but her presence propelled it to victory in the American Division of Nationals, and the local volleyball circuit took notice of her. She soon emerged as the best setter in the area, so hitters from different club teams began to reach out to her, requesting her to join them. Coaches across the country also began paying attention to her, and by her sophomore year of high school, she committed to be a setter for Cal’s volleyball team.
As a setter for the Bears, Alyssa is responsible for facilitating the offense and putting her teammates in a position to succeed.
“You have to know how to set each individual,” says Jenelle Jordan, Alyssa’s teammate since their freshman year. “Knowing individuals on the court, as well as off the court, is really big.”
Alyssa’s penchant for assisting her teammates manifested itself off the court in high school, when she saw the opportunity for her family’s circumstance to inspire others. She decided to volunteer for the PurpleStride walk in St. Louis, which helps support pancreatic cancer patients and donates toward pancreatic cancer research, and raised more than $1,000. Alyssa wasn’t shy about sharing her father’s story with her friends and was able to mobilize a large group of those close to her to participate alongside her in the walk.
Gregg, who confessed to being characteristically averse to attention, embraced the spotlight and even spoke on stage in front of all the supporters.
“The amount of people that showed up … it was amazing,” Gregg says. “And to know that she had a lot of input into that to get that to happen, it was extremely touching, to the point where I can’t ignore that. There are people that care, and that’s important. It’s not important necessarily to me, it’s important to other people too that they can share their compassion with me.”
Organizing the PurpleStride walk was a grand gesture, but Alyssa realized that she could also have a positive social impact in other ways. She began volunteering at a nearby day care in University City, Missouri, where she spent nearly 200 hours with young children — playing with them and reading to them.
For a while now, Alyssa has recognized the influence that an athlete on the national stage, such as herself, has on the kids who watch her play. She grew up idolizing her cousin Tara Mueller, a highly sought-after high school volleyball player who played for Nebraska, and closely observed the way she interacted with her fans. Now, she models her approach after Tara’s.
“It’s not important necessarily to me, it’s important to other people too that they can share their compassion with me.” – Gregg Jensen
“Little kids are always watching what you do, they always are,” Alyssa says. “I want to be that big sister, role model kind of thing and just be there for them and show them how fun it can be.”
Gregg’s influence on Alyssa can be summarized in four words: strong to the finish. Alyssa has embraced this adage as her personal motto, and she uses it to uplift the rest of her team.
“She has a lot of love for everybody on the team,” Jenelle says. “She wants the best for anybody, and she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to anyone, so she’s always making sure that someone is OK. Whatever they need, she’s always there to help them, and I feel like she’s learned that just because of her dad’s situation.”
“Strong to the finish” manifests itself in every other aspect of Alyssa’s life too. No matter what hardships she may face, her mind remains preoccupied by one thing: cutting up that next T-shirt.
Kapil Kashyap covers volleyball. Contact him at [email protected]