Unstoppable: After scrum with cancer, she’s ready for rugby

“Initially, the oncologist thought it was benign,” said Jillion Potter, who woke up after a 2013 rugby tournament with a lump under her tongue.

It wasn’t. Potter was facing a rare soft tissue cancer, one of the most misdiagnosed in the world. Stage III synovial sarcoma took her from the rugby field to a hospital room, and treatment made her feel like she had the worst flu in the world. She would walk around the grounds at the University of Colorado Hospital with her jersey and shoulder pads swinging from the pole carrying her intravenous medicine drip.

It felt like another heartbreak. In 2010, she had had a brush with a potentially career-ending and life-threatening injury. Tackled, and landing at the bottom of a pile of players in a match with France, Potter shattered her vertebra and tore ligaments. She narrowly avoided being paralyzed.

“Just like with rugby, you can get knocked down so many times,” Potter, 30, said of her treatment. She kept telling herself, “Just get back up and face it.”

Woman holding rugby ball running from opponents (© AP Images)
Jillion Potter, center, says sports helped give her the tools to overcome adversity. (© AP Images)

Throughout her cancer diagnosis, her wife, Carol Fabrizio, remained her biggest supporter. She always had a “belief that I could overcome this, and that we could overcome this together,” Potter said.

New to Rio: rugby sevens

“Growing up, I never thought I would be in the Olympics,” Potter said of her early days in Texas. She didn’t start playing organized sports until after primary school. A college friend at the University of New Mexico convinced her to try rugby.

Rugby’s not been played at the Olympics since 1924, but this year, teams will play “sevens,” a fast-paced, high-scoring type of rugby with seven players per team instead of 15. Potter says she likes sevens because it has a lot more flying around, with one-on-one play, speedy tackles and big momentum shifts.

After her battles off the field, Potter is ready to play in the first Olympic women’s rugby tournament as co-captain of Team USA. What’s she looking forward to most? “Being able to compete at a world stage, at the highest level of competition. Against the best.”

At the Rio Olympics, the women’s rugby sevens tournament will take place August 6 to 8. You can follow Jillion Potter @jillppotts.

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