Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Rugby Player Overcomes Broken Back, Cancer In Olympic Quest

Jillion Potter, right, practices in a rugby scrimmage game at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, July 8, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Jillion Potter, right, practices in a rugby scrimmage game at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, July 8, 2016.
Rugby Player Overcomes Broken Back, Cancer In Olympic Quest
Rugby Player Overcomes Broken Back, Cancer In Olympic Quest
Jillion Potter is hoping to be one of 12 American women to make the USA Olympic team. This is the first time women will play rugby in the Olympics.

This summer, women will play rugby in the Olympics for the first time. A group of athletes have spent the past four years practicing together at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, hoping to be among the 12 who make the USA Olympic team.

For one of them, the road to the Olympics has been filled with devastating setbacks.

"As I was training for the 2010 World Cup, I broke my neck," said Jillion Potter. "That kept me out for about a year of rehab, surgery."

She recovered and returned to playing. The 30-year-old moved to Chula Vista in 2012 to train at the Olympic Training Center — a vast facility that houses athletes training for the games.

Potter set her sights on getting to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But one morning two years later, "I woke up and I had swelling underneath my jaw and my tongue. And I thought, 'Oh, no,'" she said.

It turned out to be a tumor — and cancer. She had surgery to remove it, then chemotherapy and radiation. Still, she didn’t give up.

"I had radiation every day at 11. I would drive to the hospital, and then I would drive straight to the gym," Potter said. "I never wanted to look too far ahead because it sets you up for failure a little bit if you don’t stay in the present."

Within a year, she had the Rio Games back in her sights.

"To me, why would you stop? Cancer and rugby are not related," Potter said. "I had people say, 'Maybe you should retire.' And I’m thinking, no, rugby is something I love. I love my team, I love the girls, I love the sport, and I love to compete. My love of the game and having a cancer diagnosis are two separate things.

Rugby hasn’t been in the Olympics since 1924, and women have never competed in the sport at the games. So if Potter makes the team, she will have a place in history.

What has inspired Potter, beyond becoming a part of history? "The journey itself and leading a path for other young women and men to be involved in this sport," she said. "Hopefully with the inclusion of the sport in the Olympics, more people will be aware of the game and say I want to play that game."

The game will be rugby sevens, which is different from rugby that’s played at the World Cup. It has teams of seven players each, and their games are short — just 15 minutes long.

Women's rugby coach Richie Walker talks to his team during practice at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, July 8, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Women's rugby coach Richie Walker talks to his team during practice at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, July 8, 2016.

That means games are faster, with lots of running. Women’s coach Richie Walker said seeing rugby in the Olympics could inspire young girls — and their parents — to give the sport a chance.

"What they perceive of it is, oh, it’s a really tough sport, and they don’t have pads or helmets, and I might not want to let my little girl play that," he said. "But when they see our girls playing it and how safe it is and how much joy and excitement they have playing rugby, I think that will change their perspective of it."

He said he doesn’t have any concerns about Potter’s health.

"She’s a strong fighter and a tough girl," he said. "From the setbacks she’s had, she has the biggest smile on the team, always laughing and always smiling and always gives 100 percent to training every day that she’s down here."

Walker is finalizing his team and this week will announce the 12 players who will go to Rio. Potter said until then, she’ll just keep playing.

"I try not to think about it too much, because I have to focus on practice and training," she said. "If you keep getting caught up in selections, then you can’t perform."

Clearly, practicing mental strength is standard practice for her.

Rugby player Jillion Potter sits on a practice field at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, July 8, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Rugby player Jillion Potter sits on a practice field at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, July 8, 2016.