It's one of the most popular sports in the world and its players enjoy NFL-levels of stardom in countries like England, New Zealand and France, yet rugby hasn't been played in the Summer Olympics since 1924. Viewers in the U.S. are about to be introduced to their new favorite sport when rugby sevens makes its victorious comeback in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — and female rugby star Jillion Potter is the embodiment of the mental strength, persistence and athletic aptitude it takes to win the gold in this sport.
Now one of the captains of the IRB Women's Sevens World Series circuit, 29-year-old Potter admits she had no idea what rugby even was while growing up in Austin, Texas. She was an avid basketball player throughout childhood and only discovered the sport after she was enrolled at the University of New Mexico and recruiters came knocking on her door.
“Before I was recruited I actually declined numerous times,” Potter told SheKnows. "But the third time I gave it a chance. During tackling practice I fell in love with the game."
It didn't take long before Potter realized there was enormous potential for growing rugby within the United States. "Rugby is very fast-paced and exciting, especially Rugby sevens because it’s playing tournament style," she says. "It’s affordable, fast — especially for Americans. it’s perfect for the American audience. It’s a big game around the world."
By all accounts, Potter made the right choice at the right moment — dedicating her life to rugby nearly a decade before the Olympics meant she and her teammates would have a substantial amount of time to polish their skills and train to compete with teams from countries that have a built-in fan base and historic relationship with the game. What she and others lacked in tradition they made up for with sheer determination and the athleticism they carried over from their crossover sports.
But life doesn't flow in a straight line and two major obstacles would be thrown in Potter's way before she could focus her sights on Rio.
In 2010, while playing on turf against Canada, a “totally fluke accident” occurred that resulted in her breaking her neck after she caught the ball. ”When you make a tackle it doesn’t stop like in football," Potter says. "I don’t remember if I made the tackle or someone else made the tackle. I don’t advocate playing on turf. Could it have not happened if it was grass? I don’t know."
Doctors told Potter she would never play rugby again. With her C-5 vertebra fractured, torn ligaments and a destroyed disc, she could have been paralyzed. But she underwent surgery and was able to physically and mentally recover from the injury. You get the sense that she has been asked far too many times why she got up again after that fall — why she didn't stick with a safer sport or give up sports altogether. When speaking about the rugby and the potential for injury (rugby players do not wear protective gear), Potter is fiercely protective of it.
"Rugby is a very safe sport,” she says. “Starting from a young age, the first thing you learn is how to protect yourself and the other player. Because we don’t wear protective gear you have to be careful. But I would say rugby is far safer than football.”
After returning to the game and playing in two world cups, Potter was challenged again in 2014 in a major way. She was diagnosed with Stage III synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer that would require both chemotherapy and radiation.
“It teaches you it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey," Potter says. ”I think I had a lot of tough conversations with friends. I kept thinking, 'It’s not about me, it’s about the team.’ I watched the girls play and it was amazing — I was so proud of the team representing our country and the game we love. The players supported me and my journey and comeback. And my wife Carol supported me.”
Although she says doctors will never say her cancer has gone away completely, Potter is feeling stronger and healthier these days. She still gets scans every three months and will for the next five years, and then it will transition to every six months for the rest of her life. On April 1, she celebrated being cancer-free for one year.
“Every single day that I’m cancer-free I’m grateful for every minute," Potter says. "When I first started getting back into training I had lost weight. I wasn’t as strong. But I feel good — I feel like I'm recovering."
And now, Rio. Potter and her teammates are training hard in California at the moment, before they move to Seattle in June to continue preparing for the Olympic games. It's a huge moment for both rugby and Team USA and Potter says she is proud to be a part of it.
"I think as a team we’re just really excited to be a part of this historic event," Potter says. "We're really just focusing on the preparation and making sure the equipment and our health are where they need to be. We're just fine tuning the little things."
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