Life just keeps getting better for Jillion Potter. That in itself is remarkable, because life keeps trying to knock her down.
But Potter, a La Cueva and University of New Mexico alumna, prefers time and again to do the knocking down, thanks very much. It’s her style as an Olympic rugby player for the United States women, who make their Rio de Janeiro debut today. Her objective in the prop position, she said, is open holes for backs and to “crack skulls.”
Levity aside, Potter, 30 years old, 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, has come back to the sport from a serious injury that fractured two vertebrae in her back in 2010.
She has come back from being diagnosed with stage 3 synovial sarcoma, the rarest soft tissue cancer known and extremely difficult to treat.
She has acquired a measure of fame as national media have wanted to tell her inspirational story of fighting, of surviving and now thriving against the odds. Everyone from CNN to NBC Sports, from USA Today to Bleacher Report have profiled Potter, who has overcome great obstacles to rise to the top of her sport.
And now she has arrived in Rio, where as these Games begin, the Zika virus, bad water, civil unrest, crime and its other problems are less than an afterthought to her. When asked about them, she laughs.
“Those are just things that I can’t control,” she told the Journal. “Rugby is what I can control.”
Potter has represented the United States in two World Cups, and she seamlessly transitioned from the traditional 15-to-a-team rugby to Rugby 7. The latter has seven players to a team for an abbreviated 15-minute match. It is a faster, more violent version of the sport.
“I used to play it as a way to stay active in the offseason, but it has really caught on and now that’s all I play.” said Potter. “It’s really fast and there is no room for mistakes. The lead can change in an instant. You have to stay focused on the moment.”
It’s the off-the-field moments that have challenged Potter’s focus. She was competing in the 2014 World Cup when she began to feel fatigue, a sensation to which she was unaccustomed, and then terror struck. A small lump formed under her tongue. The lump got larger, eventually obstructing her breathing.
“Doctors had looked at the lump and said it was benign and not to worry. They said I’m far too young for cancer,” she said. “But while I was at the World Cup it just got bigger and bigger. I was exhausted. It all became a blur.”
Upon return to the U.S., Potter immediately went to her own doctor. After a battery of tests, the diagnosis in September of that year was devastating. Making things worse, the sarcoma was in her jaw, and surgery a terrifying prospect.
“Synovial sarcoma makes up only 1 percent of sarcomas, and synovial sarcoma in the head makes up less than 1 percent of all synovial sarcomas,” Potter said. “I was in shock. After the diagnosis I just sort of went about my day. Got lunch and stuff like that. Once I had a plan in place I called my mom and gave her the news,” Potter said. “That was the first time that I cried.”
So began the fight of her life. But the rugby community allied itself alongside her. Not just her USA teammates, but former UNM club-sport teammates and players around the world. And in front of them was Potter’s wife. She had met Carol Fabrizio while playing rugby in Glendale, Ariz. They moved together to San Diego when Potter began training at the USA Rugby facility and on Aug. 31, 2013, Potter had proposed. After the wedding they made a permanent home in Denver with their dog, Cody. “I thought I loved her then, but now I find I’m more in love with her tonight. It grows everyday.”
The choices put before Potter in combatting the sarcoma could have involved removing part of her jaw and tongue. Instead, she opted for radiation, minor surgery and the most aggressive chemotherapy a human can endure.
Potter and her spouse began making regular flights to Houston to get treatment at MD Anderson, one of the leading cancer research and treatment facilities in the world. Every day, the two would walk the 1.5-mile loop around the hospital, dragging her IV pole, which patriotically sported a Team USA jersey, at a snail’s pace as the chemical poison coursed through her veins.
The chemo took a toll before it destroyed the cancer. Potter lost her hair and much of her muscle mass. She was exhausted and constantly battling nausea. The treatments required her to spend four days in the hospital every three weeks, which impacted her relationships and training schedule. At one point, her doctor had to tell her to stop exercising so much. “I kind of overdid it,” she said.
And yet as the treatments were coming to an end Potter was able to start training again. She even ran a half marathon, with her doctor’s permission.
“I’ve been cancer free for over a year now and never felt better,” Potter said.
This is the second time Potter had overcome potentially debilitating health problems to continue her playing career. In 2010, she was injured in a game between the U.S. and host Canada in Ottawa. The initial diagnosis was a fracture of her C-5 and dislodging of her C-4 vertebrae. Not only was she told she’d never play the sport again, but that “I would need surgery and physical therapy to walk,” she recalled.
A second opinion from a stateside doctor, however, had a much more positive diagnosis. While he agreed that intensive surgery and physical therapy would be involved, Potter would not only walk again, not only play rugby again, but had a chance to make that year’s World Cup. Surgery involved removing a bone from her hip and fusing it to her spine. Then, “I just kept thinking, I gotta get up. I gotta get moving.” As soon as she could, she got back to training. Later that year, she had made the World Cup team.
Broken necks and rare cancer can be disruptive, but Potter kept a singular focus that gave her strength and helped lift her spirits. And the roller coaster was due for an upswing.
She was elated upon the news that rugby was coming to the Olympics. It is the first time ever for women, and the men last played in 1924 in Paris. The U.S. men grabbed the gold medal in a huge upset over the French, sparking riots in the streets of Paris. That year, fans stormed the pitch and the French team had to protect their American opponents, even sneaking them out of the stadium. Shortly after the protests and riots ended, the IOC decided to remove the sport.
Born in Austin, Texas, but a New Mexico girl since moving to Albuquerque in high school, Potter found herself inspired by two Land of Enchantment connections to the 1924 Games. That U.S. men’s rugby team was coached by Dudley DeGroot, who went on to become the UNM football coach (1950-53). One of his players was Norman Cleaveland, who grew up on a ranch outside of Datil.
Potter jumps at the chance to continue their legacy, particularly for a sport that has given so much to her.
“After cancer, people asked ‘Are you going to quit rugby?’ and all I could say was, ‘Why would I do that? What does one have to do with the other?'”
The matches begin today at 10 a.m. with a round of pool play. The U.S. is in Pool A with Fiji, its first opponent, Colombia and Australia, the No. 1 team in the world.
“They are the favorites and we are going to have to work our butts off to beat them,” Potter said. “Our first match is against Fiji and they play a very fast, very unique style. They are going to be a tough competitor. … (but) I think we have a great chance to medal.”
Potter is happy and excited to be where she is and knows that there is a lot at stake, not just in terms of medals, but as a pioneer for the sport she believes has a bright future and for women everywhere.
“You know, equality is always something to be mindful of and fight for. But I’ve found that rugby is a very inclusive sport. People from all over, regardless of race and religion and sexual orientation, are welcome here.”
Cancer couldn’t stop her. A shattered spine couldn’t stop her. Zika won’t stop her. Potter’s opponents have their work cut out for them.