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Hard Knocks Can’t Stop Olympic Rugby Player And Cancer Survivor Jillion Potter

By Karen Rosen | July 25, 2016, 5:39 p.m. (ET)

Jillion Potter runs with the ball at a training session at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on July 14, 2016 in Chula Vista, Calif.

A broken neck could not keep Jillion Potter down. Cancer tackled her and she got back on her feet. After all, Potter is a rugby player.

“In rugby, one of the biggest things you learn is resilience and persistence and getting knocked down in a tackle and having to get back up and support your teammates and play the game,” she said. “It’s the same in life.”

Whatever life throws at her, Potter takes in stride.

Six years after breaking her neck in a friendly against Canada and less than two years after her cancer diagnosis, Potter was one of 12 players named to the inaugural U.S. Olympic Women’s Rugby Team last weeks.

Rugby is returning to the Olympic Games for the first time since 1924, but women have never competed in the sport on the world’s biggest stage.

The official Rio 2016 website has already featured Potter prominently under the headline “Indestructible.”

Jillion Potter poses for a portrait at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on July 21, 2016 in Chula Vista, Calif.

Diagnosed with Stage III synovial sarcoma in August 2014, Potter underwent her last chemotherapy treatment on Jan. 19, 2015, and her last radiation was on March 31, 2015. By last October, she had made the U.S. rugby team.

Throughout treatment in which Potter had four days of chemotherapy every 21 days, she resolved to keep her mindset as an athlete, instead of identifying as a patient. But Potter allowed that after her first stint, “every time I had to take the car ride, I would just cry in the passenger seat the whole way to the hospital. But then once you're there, you put your game face on.”

At the University of Colorado Hospital near her home in Denver, Potter draped her USA jersey and shoulder pads onto her IV pole, then pushed it as she and wife Carol Fabrizio took their daily walk.

“It would take me forever but we would do it,” Potter said, “and if it was snowing, then we would do a bike workout or yoga, but I always had to do some sort of activity before the chemo started.”

Potter has been unstoppable ever since she was a kid.

Growing up near Austin, Texas, she played cops and robbers with her twin brother Paul or skateboarded without protective gear. “I just was a skateboard chick,” Potter said. “I had my hair down and I would wear my jeans and I’d go skateboard and jump on things and fall off things.”

In seventh grade, Potter began playing basketball and thought that was her sport. She’d never heard of rugby until college at the University of New Mexico. “These women tried to recruit me one day and I said yes,” she said with a laugh. “The first day out was tackling and we went from there.”

Potter originally played rugby 15s, the version of the sport with more players and games lasting at least 80 minutes compared to 15 minutes for rugby sevens. With the help of great coaches, Potter made the U.S. Under-19 team in six months and in another six months, the U-23 team. She quickly progressed to the U.S. senior team, although she did not earn her first cap – signifying international play – until 2007.

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About a month before the 2010 World Cup, Potter was hit from behind in a test match against Canada and went down. In what she calls a “fluke accident,” her neck hyper-flexed on the ground.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” Potter said. “I mean my neck popped about a thousand times. And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, I better not move. I need to lay down flat.’”

She was taken to a Canadian hospital and watched the rest of the game on satellite.

Potter had surgery and it took her more than a year to overcome the injury. While waiting to be released to do full contact again, she and Fabrizio met through rugby.

“I was just amazed that she went through this injury and such a serious time and that she still wanted to play,” Fabrizio said. “Now looking back, it doesn't surprise me at all because that's how she does everything.”

Rugby sevens was not on Potter’s radar until 2009, when it was voted onto the Olympic program for 2016. She decided to give it a go upon her return to the sport and within a month had a contract and a residency at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. Potter played in the 2013 World Cup in rugby sevens and was headed for the 2014 World Cup in 15s.

But life tried to knock her down again. After the 2014 World Series and a vacation in Alaska, she woke up and found swelling underneath her jaw.

“I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it was the glacier water. Maybe it was just because we went camping and did outdoor activities,’” Potter said. “We just thought it was a virus for a long time and I kind of blew it off as a sickness.”

Weeks passed and the swelling not only didn’t go away, but it was affecting her breathing. Potter went to the doctor, but tests were inconclusive. By the time the World Cup ended and she was home from France, Potter had a 10-centimeter tumor in her mouth.

It was removed and determined to be sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer.

“The biggest lesson I learned when I broke my neck was controlling what I can control and staying in the present,” Potter said. “And so when cancer came, I was just like ‘All right, here we go again.’ And that same lesson really took hold again and it's so true in every aspect of your life.”

Although she never lost sight of her goal, doubts crept into Potter’s mind. “’Can I get back to rugby? Can I get back to the Olympics?’ I guess I always knew that rugby would play a role, (that) I would come back to rugby, but I didn't know at what level.”

She couldn’t wait to find out. Potter was still undergoing radiation when she began training again. She moved back to the OTC in September 2015, but was initially discouraged.

“I would run this test and then I would start crying and be so upset from frustration or anger,” she said. “It just seemed to take so long to get back.”

“She was having a hard time with it emotionally,” Fabrizio said. “And then immediately, it switched. We ran a half-marathon about eight weeks after she finished treatment, and she was definitely the one setting the pace and I was dragging along behind her.”

While USA Rugby and Potter’s team and coaching staff were supportive, they did not go easy on her. “And I was like, ‘I want you to treat me even harder,’” she said. “‘I don't want special treatment.’”

Although Potter must spend more time in the recovery room than before and take special care with her diet and rest, she said that could also be attributable to age, not just the cancer treatments.

“Most recently, I feel like I was back,” she said. “I made the Dream Team in Sao Paulo, the tournament team, which was a huge recognition and that was nice. I was kind of getting back to my groove. But that's not the best I can play; I know I can play much better. And so I just keep looking forward to personal ways to improve myself and to not allow myself to be content with where I'm at.”

But Potter knows she can’t close the door on cancer yet. She is not on any medications, but has scans every three months.

“Every time I have to go back, I get nervous and think ‘Man, could this be it?’” she said. “I’m not really out of the woods for over five years. Based on the tumor size and things like that, there’s some statistics that may play against me, but I'm pretty confident we eradicated it and I won't have to deal with it.”

Fabrizio said the ordeal has given Potter a new perspective, made her more relaxed. In the past, Fabrizio said, “It was all about this end road, getting to the Olympics. And now, it's like, ‘Hey, I'm alive and I get to play the sport that I love every day and be with the teammates I love and have a family.’”

On the field, though, Potter doesn’t hold back. “One of Jill’s biggest attributes in rugby is her physicality,” Fabrizio said. “It's so natural to hesitate before you go into a tackle – and Jill just has no hesitation. She's got incredible explosive power, is quick on her feet, is a great teammate. She never loses her head. It's pretty impressive. And then she's just an incredible athlete. She works hard. She's got a work ethic like nobody I've ever met. So when you put all those things together, it's impossible not to excel.”

The Women’s Eagles Sevens qualified for Rio last year while Potter was sidelined. Once she was back, her teammates made her captain.

“The Olympics are a huge platform,” Potter said, “and the most exciting part about this is that this allows more people to fall in love with the game and see why it's so special and so exciting.

“Also, our performance is key. America loves winners, especially in women's sports.”

Potter said the Women’s Eagles Sevens are modeling their journey after the U.S. women’s soccer team, which has won four Olympic gold medals and is the reigning FIFA Women’s World Cup champion. “They said, ‘Hey we’ve got to win.’ We have to put all the work in behind the scenes because they didn't have a lot of funding or exposure back then when they really made waves in the sport.”

She hopes more girls and women in the U.S. will play rugby once they see it.

“I think there's a big misconception with rugby and how dangerous it can be or that the girls don't even play rugby,” Potter said.

Following her professional athletic career, she hopes to own a coffee shop or go to acupuncture school. Potter is working on her MBA from DeVry and takes a class once every eight weeks.

“When she says she's going to do something, she'll do it,” Fabrizio said. “If she wants to open the best coffee shop in Denver, she will, you know?”

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Jillion Potter