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.
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.
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.