The Lenny Interview: USA Rugby Captain Jillion Potter

How overcoming a broken neck and a bout with cancer led to the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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Jillion Potter's story is so plainly inspiring, it almost seems invented by a team of greeting-card writers. The captain of the USA rugby sevens team has overcome a broken neck and a bout with a rare cancer on the road to this summer's Olympics in Rio, which start on August 5.

When she tells her own story, though, Jillion doesn't speak in cheesy platitudes. She is matter-of-fact and warm while describing her dramatic injury, which happened when she was knocked down during a match against Canada. There's not even a hint of egotism involved when she discusses the training regimen she observed while going through chemo and radiation after a cancerous tumor was discovered in her jaw. It's like she's the anti–Lance Armstrong. That she never lost sight of her ultimate goal — continuing her career as a professional rugby player — after a half-decade of physical setbacks is fairly staggering.

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I spoke to Jillion over the phone in late May about rugby, what it sounds like when you break your neck (spoiler alert: there is a nauseating popping sound involved), and what she's doing to prepare for Rio.

Jessica Grose: How did you get into rugby?

Jillion Potter: I grew up playing basketball and other sports. In college at the University of New Mexico, a couple of women approached me and said, "Hey, do you want to play rugby?" My first reaction was No. I have never heard of rugby. It's not really my thing, and I prefer basketball, or whatever excuse I made. Then a few days later, a different set of women asked me the same question. I thought, I don't know if it's a sign, or if you have headhunters, but I'll give it a try.

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The first training I went to was tackling practice. I had no idea what I was doing, but everyone was incredibly welcoming. I thought, This is awesome, I get to tackle and be physical, even though I don't know the rules. I fell in love with rugby that day, and honestly I've never looked back. What drew me to the game was the camaraderie and the toughness, in equal parts.

JG: Can you explain the position you play and what you do on the field? My college roommate played rugby, and I went to so many of her games, and I have to confess: I had no idea what was going on.

JP: I play prop. My basic job is ball retention and ball running. It's not a glorified position. I don't score a lot — my role is to create space for the finishers on our team to score.

JG: Lenny ran a piece earlier this year about the difficulty professional women's hockey players have making ends meet, because they don't get the sponsorship opportunities or salaries that male players do. Is this a problem for rugby players too?

JP: I paid for everything for years until USA Rugby and the United States Olympic Committee started giving athletes stipends in 2012. I love my job and it's amazing, but the regular athlete stipend is by no means enough to cover everything. You pay quite a bit out of pocket. Truthfully, luckily, Carol, my wife, has supported me a lot over the years. She has a career and I have a hobby as a job [laughs].

I am sponsored by Dick's Sporting Goods and that's a big help right now, but that just came last year. I've never worked full-time in conjunction with training because I haven't had to, but a lot of the girls do. It's definitely an ongoing struggle for most players.

JG: I know you broke your neck in 2010. How did that happen? Did you think you would play again?

JP: It happened in a test match against Canada, right before the World Cup. It was just a random hit. You just rarely see those kinds of hits in rugby.

All I remember is that my neck popped so many times. I fell to the ground and thought,Oh, man, I should not move, I can't move, I won't move. I could move my limbs, but I was so scared. I remember telling my teammate Jamie, who was an older senior player, "Jamie, there is something wrong. Something is wrong with my neck and I am really scared."

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So she just stayed with me. In rugby, even if there is an injury, you play on until the ball stops or you become an obstacle. The ball moved away, and it was some time before the referee called a pause in the game. I ended up walking off the field and waiting it out. I went to the hospital although we didn't find out I'd actually broken my neck until maybe three weeks later. Then I had surgery.

At the time, I was devastated. But I was young, too, and I was focused on making the next World Cup team. During my recovery, I went back home to Albuquerque and coached at the university and refereed until I could do contact and run again.

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JG: I am sure it took a tremendous amount of maturity to keep with it knowing that it was going to be such a long road back.

JP: Everybody told me I shouldn't play rugby again. My parents, my siblings, and everyone I knew was like, "Are you sure you want to play rugby again?" And I said, "Yes, I do. It was a complete fluke and I love the game with all my heart. I'm not scared." At first I was a little timid, but you get over it, and then you just play the game.

JG: You also fought cancer after you broke your neck. When did that happen?

JP: It was June of 2014 when we found the tumor. I was at home because we had some time off before the World Cup in August. I woke up one morning and had swelling underneath my jaw and my fore-mouth area. I thought my immune system was down, or maybe I was sick.

I took antibiotics, but it didn't go away, it just kept getting bigger. Finally we did an MRI and an ultrasound and found a tumor in my jaw. At first they thought it was benign, so the doctors said I could play in the World Cup, which obviously I wanted to do since I had missed out on 2010.

I went to Europe to compete, and every week it got bigger and bigger and bigger. You couldn't tell if you looked at me because the tumor was pressing up into my mouth instead of out. I just remember that I was so exhausted. Luckily for me, I had been training all year to be super-fit and able to combat fatigue. You are trained as an athlete to just push through.

I had surgery in San Diego two days after the World Cup. We found out that it was a sarcoma, which is a soft tissue cancer classification. Because of the tumor size, and because of the rarity of the cancer, I started treatment very fast. There was no digestion period. It was like: you need to start chemo right away, and this is going to be the regimen. I was able to do chemotherapy at home, which was nice.

It was a four-day, inpatient hospital stay, so I had chemo for four days back to back. That was the worst part about it, in my opinion — the hospital stay. Of course the nausea and how you feel afterward is a bummer too.

JG: Did you continue to train through your treatment?

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JP: Basically you do a round of chemo every 21 days. I would really blow it out in the gym as hard as I could before I went in, and then every day while I was getting it, I would take a walk around campus, which was about a mile and a half. Carol would push my IV pole down the street for me.

If it wasn't nice outside, I would sit on the bike or go into the sunroom and try to do some yoga or some stretching. I was adamant that I had to do some sort of activity because you get a little stir-crazy.

It would take about two days at home after the chemo before I exercised again. Generally I would just walk to my community acupuncture place down the street, maybe a five-to-ten-minute walk.

By day ten or twelve, I usually felt pretty good. The nausea would subside, my appetite would be back, so I would lift and run and basically do everything I could. Sometimes I was so tired I wouldn't be able to do as much as I wanted to. But some days I would be feeling so good that I would completely just go crazy in the gym.

I also went to physical therapy twice a week to work on chronic athlete things like thoracic mobility. I wanted to try to get better as much I could so that by the time I could actually start really training again, I would have a better foundation.

Coming back from chemo and rebuilding my cardio was definitely harder than any conditioning session I've ever had in my life. The chemo affects your red blood cells ... all of it, it kills everything, basically. Well, not everything, or you'd be dead. But I remember that when I ran I was definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel. It is hard to dig yourself out of that.

Then, I moved to Houston for radiation. It is completely the opposite of chemo because when you have chemo, it's like you are smacked in the face, and you are exhausted from day one. With radiation, it kind of creeps up on you. I remember on my first day of radiation I thought, Well, this seems like it will probably be pretty easy. But it's cumulative, so by the end of radiation you might have skin burns and burns in your mouth, and you might feel more fatigued.

I had radiation every day at 11. I would have a good breakfast, drive down there, and go straight to the gym after, every day. I kept to a pretty solid schedule and amped up my lifting and cardio.

Initially, it was all about getting my size back. I had lost some weight during treatments, and it was about getting my muscle back and my strength back before I could add anything else. I am really fortunate for the strength and conditioning coaches that got me back to where I needed to be, and the doctors and the radiation department.

JG: It's such an incredible story, and it segues into my next question about training. What's a typical training day for you like leading up to the Olympics?

JP: Right now we train hard for three days, then we have one day off. On training days, generally we will wake up and go to the Olympic Training Center for breakfast around 7. After breakfast we go to the med room, where you do prehab, which is basically small exercises to keep you healthy.

Then we go to the field and practice. We usually practice for about an hour to an hour and a half. From there we will come back and do recovery: ice bath or contrast bath, foam roller, stretching, things like that. Then film analysis, lunch, and the weight room.

After the weight room, we go back to the field, where we either do conditioning or practice again. We train for about two to four hours on the field a day, and we lift weights three to four times a week. We usually scrimmage twice a week as well. In June, we are going up to Seattle to play Canada for a mock Olympic Games. So we will do two games every day for three days — that's how the layout will be for Rio.

JG: Speaking of Rio, with stories about rampant Zika infections and concerns about Brazil's infrastructure, do you have any safety fears going into the Olympics? Or are you focused on playing your sport and winning?

JP: Our focus is predominantly performance. We had a World Series stop in São Paulo in February, and there was a big concern about Zika, but we had sunscreen with DEET. I don't really like to put DEET on my skin, but it's something we did just to be safe. It will be winter again when we go to Rio, and I don't think mosquitoes will be out, so I am not that worried about it. In São, it wasn't like I was looking around and thinking, Oh my God, look at all of these mosquitoes. I didn't even notice them.

As for the infrastructure, I think the hardest part for Rio will be traveling to the stadium because of the traffic and the unpredictable scheduling. But let's just go and play rugby.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Jessica Grose is Lenny's editor in chief.

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