B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Connie O’Heron (right) with her daughter Kelly O’Heron, at Sconni’s where the two played in a league. Connie lost her battle with cancer this week.
Connie O’Heron stared down the length of her pool cue at two remaining balls on the table. A length of green felt stood between the yellow-striped nine ball and the black of the pocket into which it needed to disappear. That gap was all that stood between O’Heron and her dream of finally, after more than 15 years of regular appearances, taking first place at the American CueSports National Pool Championships in Las Vegas last month.
Someone shouted “breathe, Connie!” She stood up from the cue ball a moment, taking in a fresh breath of air.
O’Heron, of Wausau, had entered every national championships in the last three years thinking it would be her last. In 2012, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and believed she had about 10 months to live.
She’d been playing pool long before that diagnosis, and O’Heron decided there was no reason to stop because of cancer. Throughout treatment she continued shooting pool competitively around the state, in other states and wherever she could find a tournament.
In fact, she started playing more pool. And she played better. O’Heron began winning some of those tournaments she’d only placed in before. It was as if the illness created more focus, and pool was a sort of meditation, one friend observes. Even at the 2013 and 2014 nationals in Vegas, her team, which includes her daughter Kelly, started getting closer to the top.
But no first place.
O’Heron didn’t think she was going at all to the 2015 nationals. It didn’t look like she’d have enough people for a team. This thing on her bucket list, the thing she always shared with her daughter who accompanied her—the tournament always takes place around Mother’s Day—might not happen. Maybe that item wouldn’t be crossed off.
A phone call changed everything. On the other end of the line were players from a rival team in West Bend. They wanted her and Kelly to join them in the nationals this year. From a team she’d fiercely competed with came one more opportunity for that elusive trophy.
And so she found herself staring down the wood grain of her Jackson cue after a quick breath, one nine ball to sink, her team tied 13-13. One shot would give her team, would give her, the victory, the one she’d come close to, but never quite touched. If she missed, her competitor would have the same opportunity. The last one to sink the nine ball wins.
She eased back her cue stick, and sent the cue ball down the felt. It made that familiar clack with the nine ball, sending it toward the pocket.
A lifetime of pool
O’Heron remembers a time when she and a group of women from a nearby pool tournament found themselves in a bar at 11 am, with a man who wanted to play for money. He insisted on playing for $10 per game. The women had come to the bar only to practice and kill a little time between rounds at the tournament.
She wasn’t trying to hustle the guy, but he kept on insisting to play for $10. Game after game went by as his wallet grew $10 lighter each time, until Connie and her team were kicked out the bar out of concern the man would go broke.
It’s one of many memories O’Heron shares from a lifetime of playing pool.
Her foray into billiards started when she was a high school student, something to pass the time. She became more enamored of the sport when she started going out while in college at Viterbo University in La Crosse. And she started winning. A lot. So much so that she eventually was asked to join on a team.
That evolved into playing in pool tournaments when she was 24, and continuing to play tournaments in St. Louis in her late 20s. She played in a tournament one week after her daughter, Kelly, was born.
Eventually that led to a qualifier for the national singles tournament, in which she took second place. “She brought home a trophy that was bigger than me or my brother,” Kelly says.
She often practiced by going with her husband to a pool hall in St. Louis where women played for free if “accompanied by a gentleman.” “I got seven years of practice for free,” O’Heron says.
A mother-daughter affair
Because of her mother’s dedication, Kelly grew up with pool cue in hand. She had a table to play on from the time she was old enough to see over its green-felted top, and she often tagged along to tournaments, watching her mother run tables with some of the best.
In 1993 Kelly started playing league with her mother, and by 1999 the two were heading to Las Vegas together for the nationals. The annual tournament is always held around Mother’s Day, so the weekend took on a dual meaning: It wasn’t just about playing pool, but about mother-daughter bonding.
“Even through the times when we had those mother and daughter fits, we had something we had to get along for,” Kelly says. “It kept us together.”
Since 2001 the two never missed a tournament. “Starting around the time you were in the taxi on the way to the airport [to return home] you were already talking about your team for next year,” Connie says. “Everything from January on is the countdown to Vegas.”
For Kelly, that took some understanding teachers who allowed her to do school work or even take tests in hotel rooms while awaiting her next opponent in the tournament. Nothing would deter the two from the sport they love.
“It’s not good, Connie,” a doctor told her. O’Heron had noticed a bump near her belly button in June 2012 that wasn’t going away. She went to see a doctor and in August was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was bad. Stage four, the most advanced level, meaning the cancer already had spread to other areas of the body.
A health care professional herself, with a doctorate in psychology, O’Heron struggled to deal with the news. She read that the average life expectancy for someone with this type of stage four ovarian cancer is about 10 months. She closed up her private psychology practice, making a deal with Aspirus for a room in which to see her patients while they transitioned to another provider.
There were tears all around. Her pool team mourned. And then O’Heron decided what she would do with the rest of her life. She would keep helping her patients. She would get involved in the community, joining the YMCA board for instance. And she would keep playing pool.
An ambassador to the sport
Not only would she keep playing pool, she would dedicate herself almost completely to the sport. O’Heron already was considered one of the better amateur women’s pool players in the state, and one of the best in the country, says Dean Roeseler, better known to most simply as Dr. Pool.
Dr. Pool started a casino tour in the early 2000s that traverses the state, with a few tournaments in other parts of the Midwest as well. O’Heron has pretty much been playing in the tournament since day one, Dr. Pool says. Her deliberate, careful style is well-known to those in the Midwest pool circuit, and to many in the billiards community throughout the country.
“When you think of some of the better women’s pool players, some have attitudes or shaded pasts,” Dr. Pool says. “When you look at Connie, she’s a doctor and one of the ones that doesn’t have to play pool; she plays because she loves it. She’s helped a lot of people along the way.”
B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Connie O’Heron (center) with her daughter Kelly O’Heron (left) and Alison Fischer,one of many pool players Connie has took under her wing.
Many consider O’Heron to be an ambassador for the sport, Dr. Pool says—someone other women can look up to, gain inspiration from and absorb a little advice from. That’s important in a sport that’s still pretty gender-sided. In his tournaments there’s roughly 80% men to 20% women. That is still better than less than 10% women when he first started the tournaments.
He attributes a lot of that rise in women players to Connie’s tutelage. “She’s always bringing people into the sport, they’re good at getting people to come to tournaments,” Dr. Pool says. “[Connie and Kelly] are great promoters of the sport.”
One of those people is Alison Fischer. Fischer, now an editor and photographer for NYC Grind covering the pool scene in New York, played on teams with the O’Herons and was taken under Connie’s wing while she made her foray into the world of tournament pool.
“Connie was really welcoming and kind-hearted to me,” Fischer says. “She’s a really great example of what sportsmanship should be in pool.”
Fischer grew up in Wausau and started pool as a young girl. She says O’Heron was one of the better pool players around when she first started entering leagues at the now defunct Tanglewood Lanes in Rib Mountain.
“One of the things I learned from Connie is that you should never get down on yourself if you make mistakes,” Fischer says. “No matter where you are in the game, it’s a matter of not losing sight of the fact that as long as the game’s still going on, it’s not over. You’re never out of it, you have to stay focused.”
It’s partly through association with O’Heron that Fischer ended up in New York. Their friendship led Fischer to meet pool players and professionals from all over the country. While competing with Connie at tournaments in 2007, she met the people who connected her to the job she has today, she says.
There aren’t a lot of players on Connie’s, or Kelly’s, level, says Doug Garn, a pool player from Sioux St. Marie, Mich. who has played in tournaments with Connie and on her same team, and has developed a friendship with her. His first memory of her was losing to her in a team tournament. “I told my teammates ‘these ladies can really shoot.’”
In O’Heron, Garn found someone even more addicted to pool than he. And someone who was always willing to share that addiction with others. “She’s taken a lot of people under her wing,” Garn says. “She just wants to play a fair game with everyone.”
O’Heron recently made that role official, becoming certified as an instructor; one more thing marked off her bucket list.
Making the shot
With all that in mind, O’Heron took a breath before she bore her cue stick down on the white ball, lining up the shot to send the yellow-striped nine ball into the pocket. O’Heron is generally known for having a methodical, analytical approach to her pool game, but the little reminder to breathe caused her to stand up for a moment before once again lining up to sink the ball.
A moment of silence fell over the room, all attention focused on this final round, this one pool table still in play out of dozens that previously had created a nonstop cracking of cue balls striking their targets.
Kelly was the first to scream as her mother stroked through the cue ball, sending that yellow ball into the corner pocket. Kelly jumped up and down shouting, as the people watching erupted in cheers.
They likely weren’t cheering on the outside as loudly as Connie O’Heron was cheering on the inside. The one trophy that eluded her was now in her possession, won long after she had expected to live, let alone command a pool table.
Her team went on to win the eight-ball tournament in Las Vegas, too, by a much larger margin. It was a weekend O’Heron couldn’t have dreamed up while sitting in her backyard three years ago studying her radiology report.
Though she has survived much longer than the expected 10 months, the cancer is taking a toll. She tires more easily. In the past, she used to partake in the Las Vegas nightlife while competing in the national tournaments. This year, she retired to her hotel room early.
But while O’Heron races the clock, she’s using her time to continue checking things off her bucket list. Winning the national pool championship with Kelly at her side: Check.
Editor’s note: Connie lost her battle with cancer on Nov. 3, 2016. Her story touched and inspired us all. Our deepest condolences go out to her family and friends.