Jo Ann Heckroth Jansen
The video of the San Diego Splash has surpassed 20 million views on ESPN’s Facebook page and has hundreds of thousands more on ESPN.com. There’s talk of a full-length documentary. But for Jo Ann Heckroth Jansen ’57, the impressions she and her octogenarian basketball teammates are making on young girls mean more than celebrity status.
“I’m the oldest person they ever saw, probably,” the 82-year-old Jansen says with a chuckle. Invariably, a Girl Scout troop and other young girls are in the stands at the suburban San Diego YMCA when Jansen and the Splash are on the court — and Jansen can see how inspired they are.
“They bring signs, and they cheer, and they stay for the whole game,” she says. “I think they look up to us.”
A lifelong teacher, Jansen taught physical education and special education in Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas, and California before retiring at age 77. But her basketball-playing options were limited growing up as an Iowa farm girl. Pick-up games with her brothers and their friends were far more intense than the 6-on-6, half-court, high school games sanctioned for girls of her era. And when she arrived on campus at Wisconsin, her only hooping option was on a women’s rec-league team at Lathrop Hall.
“There were no leagues for girls to play in then,” she says. “People just didn’t think it was good for you. And it wasn’t ladylike.”
These days, knowing that her youngest fans can play the game in a post–Title IX era fills her with joy, not jealousy.
Jansen arrived in California in 2000, but she didn’t find out about the women’s league for several years. So just as she always had, she fearlessly played against men. “The ball would go up for a shot and I’d block out,” she says proudly. “And guys would say, ‘Did you see that? That little old lady, she blocked me out!’ ”
She joined the San Diego Senior Women’s Basketball Association for women age 50 and over and last year, ESPN’s Julie Foudy — a former U.S. women’s soccer star who won two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal — happened upon the 80-and-over team in a chance meeting with its coach, CJ Moloney.
“I just felt this incredible awe and respect for what they’re doing. I’m 46 now, and I make excuses to not get out there. Who am I to stay on the couch?” Foudy says. “These women are rad. They’ve been breaking barriers their whole lives, so to them, they’re just playing basketball. People are going crazy for this.”
This isn’t Jansen’s first brush with athletic fame — “Alan Ameche ’56 was in our folk- and-square-dancing class,” she recalls of the UW football legend — and she’s enjoyed being the Splash’s go-to player in most games. Although she missed the national tournament one year following hip and wrist injuries suffered in a game, she’s returned to her pre-injury form this season.
“I’m a scorer. And a rebounder. But I should be — I’m the youngest,” she says. “The speed of the game slows down a little every year.”
Meanwhile, the Splash’s popularity has grown quickly. The players put earnings from their newfound notoriety toward sending young girls to basketball camps.
“The crazy thing is, Jo Ann and these amazing women, they don’t even realize how inspirational they really are,” Foudy says. “I think that’s the coolest thing.”
Published in the Spring 2018 issue