August S’Hero | Jillion Potter

  • August 5, 2016
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Photo: World Rugby

RICHMOND, VA (August 5, 2016) – As part of the Amazing Young WomenTM movement, S’Heroes highlight female role models and is creating an aspirational line-up of women whose stories motivate and inspire our nation’s young female athletes, who are balancing their ambition to become elite athletes with the pressures of fitting in with social peers. The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) is excited to announce the August S’Hero as Jillion Potter.

After overcoming a broken neck and cancer, Jillion Potter is now an Olympic athlete, and will be representing the United States Women’s Rugby team in Rio this weekend. Potter’s resiliency and fight to overcome a serious injury and then a life-threatening illness, and still become an Olympian, is why she is our August S’Hero. Her story is filled with ups and downs, but through it all, with the support of her friends, family and teammates, Potter stayed positive and always had her return to rugby in the back of her mind.

To become an Olympian, is a dream that many young athletes aspire to fulfill, but Potter did not find her sport until college. Growing up Potter identified as a skater chick while also playing some tennis and then finding basketball, which she was more serious about by the time she got to high school. It wasn’t until she was at the University of New Mexico that she was recruited on campus to play rugby and her not so linear journey to the Olympics began.

At the time, rugby was not an Olympic sport (this will be the first time rugby is played in the Olympics since 1924 and the first women’s rugby has ever been played in the Olympics) so the top competition in rugby was the Rugby World Cup. It wasn’t until Potter began to climb the ranks of the USA National Team, through the U19 and U23 squads that she began to take rugby seriously. While attending the 2006 Rugby World Cup she had a moment where she began to believe rugby would be something she could pursue long term.

“I remember sitting in the stands and that’s when I made my decision. I was watching them play and I thought to myself, ‘I want to do that, I want to be one of those women down there.’ That’s when I started training for the 2010 World Cup and making that my priority,” Potter recalled.

The Setback

It began while Potter was playing in a test match for the 2010 World Cup against Canada that she thought she was never going to be able to play rugby again; she broke her neck. Although she has never watched the film of what exactly happened, she recalls hearing a pop, pop, pop when tackled and immediately knowing something was wrong.

In Canada, they told her, “Jillion, you’ll never play rugby again.” Fortunately, they had been mistaken. Through more tests upon arriving back in the states they found that what the doctors had seen in Canada was actually a congenital birth defect on her C1 vertebrae, but there was still something wrong around the C4 and C5 vertebrae. Potter began to believe not only that she would be able to play again, but that she had a shot to possibly play in the World Cup after all.

While waiting for final results, she would wear her neck brace to the gym and lift as much as possible, nothing overhead, but she would do squats, leg press and body weight with the thought that if she could play in the World Cup, she would be prepared. The results came in, and one look at the MRI let her know her World Cup dreams for 2010 would not come true. Instead, she headed to surgery.  With he best medical team and support available, she was able to make a full recovery in just a year.

During her yearlong recovery, she had to watch her teammates go off to the World Cup without her. She admits struggling with that, but through some eye-opening conversations with her friends and a few key learning moments, she realized she needed to go to the World Cup and support her team.  Potter was a big part of qualifying and making it this far.  She credits her teammates for keeping her involved through e-mail while they began their journey, and she began rehabilitation.

“I knew that I wanted to come back.  So many of my teammates helped me through believing in my chance to be ready for the 2014 World Cup and not letting me give up,” said Potter about her teammates during her recovery. “I attribute a big part of my return to those girls.”

By the time Potter returned to the pitch, the Olympics had announced Rugby Sevens as a sport for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Potter quickly shifted her focus from Fifteens to Sevens upon her return, signing a contract to become a full-time resident at the Olympic Training Center. She began playing on the World Rugby Sevens Series circuit and became one of the rotating captains for the USA Women’s Sevens Rugby team. Potter also accomplished her dream to play in the Rugby World Cup, playing in the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup and the 2014 Rugby World Cup.

The Fight

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Photo: Jillion Potter

Shortly after fulfilling her comeback and making it to the 2014 World Cup, she received devastating news. Potter had been diagnosed with cancer. She had been playing with a mass in her jaw throughout the World Cup, but did not find out until later that she had Stage III Synovial Sarcoma.

“I was naive initially to what that really meant. I didn’t think that that could ever happen to someone like me. To someone young, to someone fit, to someone who paid attention to what they ate, who slept well,” Potter said of her diagnosis.

Potter was told she had a malignant mass, but she did not initially realize that Sarcoma was a soft tissue cancer. Upon further research, she realized she was in for a fight for her life. Her and wife, Carol, immediately began to create a battle plan and generally keeping the diagnosis secret until they knew more details.

Faced with her new truth, cancer, and the need to start chemotherapy immediately, she struggled with how and when to tell her teammates. There was no time to process between finding out the severity of her cancer and when she needed to begin chemo, so she consulted her sports psychologist.  Potter told her teammates why she had been missing practices, and the next day she flew to Denver for treatment.

Although it was difficult to tell her teammates, the reality did not set in until she told her mom and shaved her head.

“No one wants to tell their family they have cancer,” Potter said of telling her mom. “It was this big nightmare of disbelief.’

It was this moment where it became real. They recommend you shave your head before chemo to avoid the trauma of your hair fall out, so days before chemo started Potter, her wife and two friends came over to take the first step in the fight. Potter recalls physically shaking as they began to shave her long hair into a buzz cut. Her two teammates who were there, Hannah Stolba and Vanesha McGee, took the step in solidarity and shaved their heads as well.

Once chemo began, the four day stretches in the hospital really challenged Potter. She admitted crying each time they had to return to the hospital. The support of her family and teammates helped her remain positive throughout the process. On particularly bad days, she had incredibly touching videos and letters that came from players and teams all over the world, encouraging her with sentiments like “We believe in you” and “Rio is waiting for you.” One of the videos is shared here.

Her focus was on the fight for her life, but on her good days she would look beyond and shift her focus to rugby. She was in physical therapy three times a week, where her goal was to work out some of the chronic ailments she developed while playing rugby over the past decade. Taking laps with her IV when she could, biking and doing yoga.

“At the end of the day you just have to believe that the chemo is doing good things to you, that it is fulfilling its purpose even though it is a nasty, nasty drug. You have to envision that it is curing the cancer. There was this one chemo in particular that was red that the nurses have to push into my port instead of an IV drip. I hated it because it was scary. When it would start Carol and I would make little machine gun noises, like pew-pew-pew, knowing that in our minds we were directing the chemo to the cancer. We would do little things like that to calm my thoughts and get through it,” Potter said about keeping a positive mindset.

There were hard times throughout her yearlong fight to become cancer-free. “There were days where I would be really frustrated with myself and I thought this was an impossible obstacle to come back from, but little by little I would just put my head down and do it.” Potter said.

The Comeback

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Photo: Reuters

After countless hours in a hospital room, battling this evil disease, Potter was back on the field and cancer-free in about a year. She quickly returned to the World Rugby Sevens Series circuit and began to return to her pre-diagnosis form. She played in 22 of the 29 matches in the 2015-16 World Rugby Sevens Series circuit and was focused on making the Olympic team.

“Thinking about the challenges I have overcome to get here is just a part of my not so linear journey, and no great journeys are linear. Sometimes you have to take a few detours to make your story special,” Potter said about her journey to the Olympics.

The 2016 Olympics will always hold a distinct place in Potter’s heart. Not only has she completed an unthinkable comeback not once, but twice; but she will be a part of a historic Olympics for the USA Women’s Rugby program. She always says, “We did it” about her return. Referring to the sacrifices her teammates and their families made, to her family, her wife, and everyone who has played a role in believing in her.

Potter has officially made it to Rio and is preparing for a new fight, a fight for gold. All she could say in response to making it was how honored and privileged she was to represent the USA.

Through her injuries and illness, she has learned a lot about how to take care of yourself when looking to make a comeback. Her biggest advice is to be kind to yourself, be patient and to accept where you are in the moment. She remembers wanting to be further along in her recovery but realizing that you had to accept your reality in that moment, and do what you can. If you are in a cast or had surgery, focus on icing, eating healthy and sleeping well. Be focused on that moment and do not skip any of the steps along the way.

“At the end of the day, make sure your teammates are feeling good and are confident in themselves, because that will be reflected back to you when you need it most,” Potter said about her leadership style.

Potter and the USA Women’s Rugby Team take on Fiji, Columbia and Australia in the group stages beginning Saturday August 6.  For more information on the Olympics, click here.

Jillion, thank you for sharing your story and being an Amazing Young Woman.

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About Amazing Young WomenTM:  Launched by the ECNL, the Amazing Young Women is a dynamic platform of online and local market activations that showcase and celebrate female role models offering an aspirational focus for all female athletes and teens as they prepare to be our next generation of leaders.  The ECNL is calling on all of the nation’s women to join the movement to celebrate the endless potential of today’s girls.

Women of all ages can share their personal moments of inspiration through social media and at www.AmazingYoungWomen.com.  Every share and submission helps drive a movement that celebrates the power of what it is to be a girl today.

Amazing Young Women of the ECNL will be showcased at AmazingYoungWomen.com. Through testimonials, tips and tools, the website is providing all girls to view, share, and celebrate what it is to be motivated, strong, and successful.

About Elite Clubs National League:  The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) was founded in 2009 to enhance the developmental experience of female youth soccer players in the United States through: (i) improving the competitive environment through creation of a true national competitive league; (ii) improving the process for identifying elite female soccer players for college and youth national teams through a systematic scouting and identification program based on national competitions; and (iii) improving the daily training environment at top female youth soccer clubs through developing best practices and training and organizational guidelines for its member clubs.  The ECNL is sanctioned by US Club Soccer and is sponsored by Nike Soccer.

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