She wanted to make it a festive affair, the going-away party for her hair.
It was August 2014, a warm summer evening in Denver. She and her wife invited two of their closest friends to their condominium. Together they had dinner. They ate chocolate for desert. They told stories. And they laughed and laughed like it was just another carefree, contented night in the growing shadows of the Rocky Mountains.
Then Jillion Potter, age 28, said it was time to say goodbye.
She gazed outside the window as the last blush of light streaked across the red-orange Colorado sky—she always savored the magic of the Mile High sky at sunset—then she took a seat on a bar stool in the living room. One of her friends, a teammate on the U.S. national rugby team, flipped on the electric hair-clippers. Jill, as everyone calls her, said she was ready.
She grabbed the hand of Carol, her wife. Trembling, she closed her eyes. Then the act commenced and her long strawberry-blonde tresses began cascading to the floor, piling at her feet.
Oh my did she cry, the tears falling like raindrops from her eyes. Carol clutched her hand as tight as she could, whispering in her ear that her rugby career wasn’t over, that her Olympic dream was still alive, that one day this pain would disappear. But Jill’s eyes, the color of the bluest ocean, continued to leak like never before.
The clippers were turned off. Taking a deep breath, Jill walked to a mirror. For one minute, then two, she stared at her bald head, looking at herself like she was seeing her own face for the first time. She gently rubbed her fingers over the skin on her scalp, feeling its contours, its smoothness, studying her new portrait.
The tears suddenly stopped. She looked back at her friends, flashing a luminous, lovely smile they would later swear was as bright as a full moon. “Damn,” Jill said. “I don’t look too bad. I actually look good! I can do this!”
In a day, she would begin her first round of chemotherapy, the dosage so noxious that it could have killed someone who wasn’t as athletic and vigorous and strong as Jillion Potter. Thing was, without the powerful chemo, her doctors feared that Jill would be in danger of becoming another sad statistic in her fight against her stage 3 synovial sarcoma cancer. It already was ruthlessly aggressive, an invading army of malignant cells in her jaw and mouth.
“I don’t care what the odds are,” a freshly shaven Jill told her friends. “I’m going to get through this one way or another.”
Jill didn’t say it on this night, but deep inside of her—deep in those dark corridors in her mind she hated to walk down—she was plain terrified she was going to die.
Popping in her mouth guard, the most ferocious player in the history of U.S. women’s rugby runs onto the practice field at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. It’s mid-June, and the Games in Rio de Janeiro are six weeks away. On this blue-sky afternoon in Southern California, Jillion Potter is about to make a point.
A whistle blows. Playing defense in a three-on-seven, no-tackling drill, the 5’10’’, 175-pound Potter sprints toward the ball-carrier like a strong safety zeroing in on a running back. She pushes aside a blocker and—rules be damned—lunges at Megan Bonny, who has the watermelon-shaped rugby ball in her hands.
Then it happens: Potter and Bonny collide in a blur of a startling violence. With no pads on, the bone-on-bone hit sounds like a pair of two-by-fours thwacking each other. Potter drives into Bonny—remember Kam Chancellor destroying Vernon Davis in 2012?—and smashes her into the ground like a hammerhead into a nail. The ball pops out of Bonny’s hands.
Another whistle blows. Potter rises and stands over her fallen teammate, a liquid glimmer of intensity shining in her eyes, a satisfied smile on her face. “I don’t believe in no-touch drills!” she yells as she helps Bonny to her feet. “We form bad habits when we don’t hit. We need to hit. We have to hit!”
Potter then takes her position with the two other defenders for another rep in the drill. Bonny staggers back to her spot on offense. Not surprisingly, a moment later, when Bonny has the ball in her hands again and spots big, bad Jillion Potter barreling in her direction, she quickly passes to a teammate. She may as well have screamed, “Uncle!”
“Jillion is the enforcer on our team,” says Richie Walker, the coach of the USA women’s rugby sevens team that will compete in Rio. “She loves contact as much as anyone in the sport today. I mean, she loves being physical. And because of that, Jill always makes the other team uncomfortable. The way she plays, you’d never know everything she’s been through.”
How rawhide tough is she? Two times from a hospital bed she has stared down the specter of never playing again—and two times, against the longest of odds, she’s returned to the rugby field.
Indeed, the story of Jillion Potter is truly Olympian for one reason:
It reminds us all that anything is possible.
She is sitting on a wooden Adirondack chair in the shade of an oak tree on the grounds of the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. In the distance, she can see Otay Lake Reservoir, where the soft afternoon sunlight glitters on the water and sparkles like thousands of diamonds. She acutely feels the warm California breeze feather her cheeks and ruffle her close-cropped auburn hair.
“You reassess what is important in your life when you see how quickly things can be taken away from you,” Potter says, looking into the distance at San Miguel Mountain. “Little things, like noticing how nice the weather is, become noticeable. Your outlook on everything truly changes.”
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Jill was a self-described “skateboard chick.” Rarely wearing a helmet or protective gear, she was a daredevil, always the most aggressive rider in her group—boy or girl.
“Jill thought she was Tony Hawk, the way she jumped curbs and rode down the stairs on her board,” says Vikki King, Potter's mother. “She was a tomboy. She got rid of her dolls at age five and got into balls. She pushed everything to the limit. She played basketball in high school and loved to push people around under the rim. My family has been in Texas since 1838, and Jill is very much Texas strong.”
No one understood her Lone Star grittiness better than Jill’s twin brother, Paul, who now works at a Ford dealership outside of Dallas. Growing up, Paul told every one of his 47 cousins, “If I’m ever in a rumble, I’m only bringing one person: Jill. That’s all it will take.”
She attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she planned to walk onto the women’s basketball team. Two times during her freshman year a different girl asked Potter to check out the club rugby team, but she declined both. A third girl insisted that she just give it a try. Potter didn’t know it, but she had the ideal body type for rugby—lean and muscular with particularly strong thighs and legs. She finally said yes.
Her mom bought her a Rugby for Dummies book off eBay. Potter had no idea what the rules were when she first stepped onto the field, but as soon as she made her first tackle, she was hooked, as if hitting were a drug that gave her a full-body rush of excitement.
“Mom, it’s amazing,” she said over the phone to her mother after the first practice. “Rugby is a little like touch football except we get to tackle!”
In rugby circles that fall, Potter became known as “the crazy redhead.” Her teammates at New Mexico joked that she liked to tackle with her face. One time, she hit a young woman named Gabby so hard in practice that Gabby’s two front teeth popped out. Blood gushing, Gabby ran off the field and rushed to the dentist. She never returned to the rugby field.
“Jill was the Brian Urlacher of women’s rugby at the University of New Mexico,” says Shannon Robinson, the team’s head coach. “She hit like a truck and ran like a deer. In just a matter of weeks, she went beyond everyone’s imagination of how the game of rugby was played in America.”
Stories of Potter's category-five aggression quickly traveled across the country, as if pushed by the autumn breeze, to different rugby teams. The tales of Potter delivering consciousness-rattling hits soon reached the coaches at USA Rugby, who invited her to try out for the under-19 national team only three months after she started playing the sport.
She made the squad. Two years later, in 2007, she was elevated to the national team. “Jill just went balls to the wall every second of every match,” says Ryan Carlyle, a longtime friend of Potter’s who is a teammate on the U.S. Rugby Olympic team. “You see players on the other team try to avoid her at all costs. Trust me, you don’t want to get involved with her out there. She drops people, and they don’t get up.”
“I first heard about Jill when I was in college at UCLA and she was at New Mexico,” says Kelly Griffin, another Olympic teammate. “She was known as a crazy-ass flanker. I mean, totally crazy, 100 percent beast. She’d just lay people out like it was nothing. I’d never seen anything like it.”
In the summer of 2010, Potter traveled with the national team to Victoria, British Columbia, for a series of matches. In the first match, Potter was in a ruck—the sport’s vernacular for a scrum in which the ball is on the ground and the players are on their feet pushing each other—when she was knocked to the grass.
A second later, Potter was still on the ground when two Canadian players lost their balance and landed on her neck. Immediately she heard pop, pop, pop, pop, pop thunder in her ears. The Canadian players lifted themselves up. For the first time in Potter's career, she stayed on the ground.
Watching the game streaming on her computer from her home in Oakland, California, Victoria Folayan couldn’t understand why Potter wasn’t getting up. Folayan had hoped to play with Potter in the 2010 World Cup in London, but now her heart sank as she stared at her lying motionless on the field.
“Jill always gets up, even after the hardest hits you can imagine,” says Folayan, now a member of the Olympic team. “She was the team captain, the leader and the most powerful force out there. It was terrifying to see her not get up.”
A team trainer attended to Potter for several minutes, conducting a few tests of her neck. The trainer then helped her to her feet and guided her off the field.
Potter sat on the bench, keeping her posture as straight as possible. She watched the final 15 minutes of the match. Once it was over, she rode in the passenger’s seat of the trainer’s car as they headed to a local hospital. Neither of them knew then that a quick stop or a jerk of the wheel could have been cataclysmic; any sudden motion could have left her paralyzed.
A CT scan showed that something wasn’t right in the area of the C4 and C5 vertebrae in her neck. The doctors said that Potter needed an MRI to conclusively determine the extent of the damage.
That night, Potter called her mom from Canada. “Something is wrong with my neck,” she said. For the first time, she broke down and handed the phone to the trainer, who explained that Jill had injured her spine.
Potter left Canada in a neck brace and flew to Minneapolis. She was driven to a hospital where tests revealed that her C4 vertebra was displaced, the C5 was fractured, a disc was ruptured and several ligaments were torn. Potter was on her way home by the time the doctor received the results.
“Don’t take off your neck brace and come back to the hospital right away,” the doctor told her over the phone. “Please try to be really careful on your drive. Your neck is really unstable.” He added that she would never play rugby again.
A friend ferried her back to the hospital, careful to avoid potholes. Potter, weeping in the car, had never been so scared in her life.
She walks through the lobby of the Beverly Hilton, strolling along in anonymity on this spring morning. In the last 24 hours, gymnast Simone Biles—the favorite to win the all-around in Rio—and other A-list Olympic athletes such as swimmer Missy Franklin and decathlete Ashton Eaton have hobnobbed with the media in the plush halls of this Beverly Hills hotel.
But no pen-wielding writer or camera-toting reporter stops Jillion Potter—or even does a double take. This is the lot of an athlete who plays a fringe sport in America, no matter how arresting and death-defying her biography.
Men's and women’s rugby are returning to the Olympics for the first time in 92 years this summer, but rugby has miles and miles to travel before it will fire the imagination of the American sporting pubic like gymnastics, soccer or swimming. So for nearly 30 minutes, Potter sits by herself in a corner of a windowless room that is filled with reporters who are busy interviewing other Olympic athletes.
“Americans haven’t been playing rugby as long as the Australians or the teams from New Zealand or England,” Potter says. “We don’t have their skills, but we feel like we are superior athletes. So we play a simpler style. We don’t do as many things on the field, but if we play to our ability, we definitely expect to win a medal in Rio and be standing on the platform.”
Optimism aside, the American women’s rugby team will have a tall mountain to climb in Rio to medal. The USA sevens squad is ranked seventh in the world, according to worldrugby.org. The two favorites for Olympic gold are the usual suspects of Australia and New Zealand.
“Jill gives us the ability to stand toe-to-toe with any team in the world,” says Walker, the U.S. coach. “Jill is talented enough that she could be a force on any team, anywhere. We’re lucky she’s with us.”
The neck surgery was performed in August 2010 at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, by a doctor who had operated on several NFL players with similar injuries. Before Potter was wheeled into the operating room, her mom sweetly kissed her on the forehead. Once Jill was out of sight, she collapsed into a puddle of tears.
“I was so scared that my precious child was going to be paralyzed,” says King, choking up at the memory. “The nurses brought me pillows and blankets while I was in the waiting room. Priests came in and prayed with me. We prayed for a miracle. It felt like we prayed for an eternity.”
The surgeon used bone from Potter's hip to fuse the C4 and C5 vertebrae. When Potter awoke, he assured her that she would one day be able to run again. To Potter, hearing those words meant only one thing: She would play rugby again. “There was never a doubt in my mind that I was coming back,” she says.
She rehabbed in Albuquerque. In the mornings, she underwent physical therapy to increase the strength in her neck; in the afternoons, she patrolled the sidelines as an assistant coach on the University of New Mexico’s rugby team.
Doctors told Potter, who was barely able to turn her neck in the weeks following surgery, that she wouldn’t be 100 percent for a full year. But just six months after surgery, Robinson, the New Mexico head coach, noticed Potter was showing the players proper tackling techniques by performing the drills herself.
Oh no, Robinson thought, the dog is off the leash. Jill is coming back.
“There were conflicting opinions from the medical field about whether it was a good idea for Jill to play rugby again,” Robinson says. “Many said it was too dangerous for her, but others said she was at no more risk than anyone else. Jill and I talked about this every day after practice. I asked her what does rugby mean to you? And she’d say, ‘Everything.’ And then, just like that, she was back out on the field, and Jill was taking off before my eyes.”
After one season of coaching the Lobos, Potter moved to Denver in May 2011. She began practicing with a local club rugby team, the Glendale Raptors. Before the start of her first practice, she met Carol Fabrizio, a player who had earned a law degree from USC.
Their chemistry was immediate. Less than two years later, Jill proposed to Carol under a willow tree at Carol’s childhood home in Danville, Illinois. They were married in August 2013, two months after Jill had won a bronze medal with the U.S. team at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow. Life, for Jill, was deliciously good.
Rugby sevens—the form of the sport that will be played in the Rio Olympics—features seven players and is faster-paced than the game known as rugby union, which has 15 players on each side. That's the version Potter had been playing ever since her days at New Mexico.
“Sevens is played on the same length of field as 15s, but it’s only a 15-minute game instead of an 80-minute game,” Potter says. “Things happen so fast in sevens. There are a lot of big-impact tackles, a lot of scoring, a lot of one-on-one opportunities in the open field.”
In June 2014, Jill and Carol went on an Alaskan vacation, hiking together through the wilds of the backcountry and drinking glacier water. At times, Potter struggled to keep her breath.
On the first morning after returning to Denver, Potter awoke with swelling under her jaw. She figured she’d contracted a bacterial infection from the glacier water. She eventually visited a doctor, who performed an ultrasound. The test revealed a slow-growing tumor. The doctor told Jill and Carol he believed it was benign. Surgery was scheduled for Aug. 18, 2014.
Potter continued to play rugby. In early August, she traveled to Paris with the national team for the 2014 World Cup. (Team USA finished sixth.) Potter was unusually fatigued during the tournament—each morning, she groggily awoke feeling like she hadn’t slept for more than a few minutes—and her roommate told her she was snoring like a drunken sailor. “You are sawing some serious logs,” the roommate told Potter. “Is everything OK?”
“Struggling to breathe is normal to me because of my training,” Potter says. “I train to push myself beyond fatigue. So I’m still thinking everything is OK.”
The day after she arrived back in the United States, Potter underwent surgery to remove the tumor in San Diego. The doctors were shocked at what they found: The tumor had ballooned to 10-by-8-by-3 centimeters, which was considered a massive growth in the jaw.
If the doctors had known it was going to be this large, they later told Potter, they likely would have removed her jaw and part of her tongue, meaning she would have had to relearn how to talk and eat.
A week later, tests on the tissue revealed that it was malignant. When the doctor informed Potter that she had a rare form of stage 3 synovial sarcoma, she fell into the arms of the rugby team trainer, who had made the trip to the doctor’s office with the team’s star player.
Potter immediately Googled stage 3 synovial sarcoma—and was horrified by what she read on the internet. “I saw the death rates and statistics for someone who had a tumor the size of mine, and it was scary. My tumor size is very unfavorable,” Potter says. “I’d go into a dark deep hole. Then I’d think: 'OK, I’ll just read one more thing online.' Then I’d do it and start bawling. It was so hard.”
So was telling her teammates. One afternoon after a practice in Chula Vista, Potter, who had missed several training sessions, suddenly appeared in a team meeting room. Her hands shook as she spoke.
“It turns out I have cancer,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s rare, and it’s aggressive. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” It was one of the first times she said the C-word aloud—“cancer”—and it caused her to break down. Her teammates soon swarmed her, all crying, all telling her they loved her.
A few days later, she shaved her head. “It was easier to do that, I was told, than to experience the trauma of having your hair fall out in clumps,” she says.
“I’ve never seen Jill as upset as she was when we removed her hair,” Carol says. “That was when it all became very real—too real.”
The next morning, Carol drove Jill to the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora to begin chemotherapy. The sessions were going to be grueling: She was slated to do six rounds of four-day in-patient stays every 21 days.
In the car, Potter looked out the window and quietly sobbed. She knew that she was about to cross a river of darkness and enter a kind of hell on earth. The doctors told her that because of her outstanding fitness and young age, they were going to give her an almost unimaginably powerful dose of chemo. They warned her that it was going to make her so sick that it would be excruciatingly painful even to lie down—the worst flu of her life multiplied by a hundred.
“The car rides to the hospital were the hardest,” Carol says. “Jill would be so quiet and then get choked up because she didn’t want to go, but she knew she had to. There was no other choice. I hated those car rides.”
Yet once the chemo began, a sense of peace settled over Potter, as if she had accepted her fate—no matter what it was going to be. One time, she violently threw up for several minutes. Then, just a few moments later, a nurse walked in to check on her. Potter immediately brightened and asked, “How is your day going?”
Other times, she would be so weak she could barely keep her eyes open. Then, when a teammate or friend would stop by to visit, Potter would summon the energy to rise from her bed and insist the visitor take a seat where she had been lying. Carol told her wife to take it easy, but Jill wouldn’t have it.
During her four-day hospital stays, Potter, when she had the strength, would walk with her IV drip over to the children’s oncology ward. Her mother had sent her coloring books and markers and paper dolls to help take her mind off the chemo, but instead, she handed out these items to the kids. Seeing those sick, young faces reminded Potter of how lucky she had been in her own life, to have lived as long as she had, even though she was only 28.
If the weather was nice, Carol would help Jill pull on her rugby jersey, and the two would go for slow walks around the hospital campus, sometimes making it three miles. Potter already was focusing on the distant horizons—advance, never retreat, could be her life motto—and what it would take for her to make the 2016 Olympic team.
So if a doctor told Potter to drink 17 glasses of water one day, she would make sure to gulp down 20, no matter how godawful it made her feel. Told to take it easy on her off days from chemo, Potter trained like her spot on the Olympic team was on the line, lifting weights and running to the point of total exhaustion and physical collapse.
“I learned from my broken neck that you need to control only what you can and you must stay in the present,” Potter says. “I would look at the faces of people who were with me, Carol especially, and realize how beautiful they were and how lucky I was to have them in my life. I took in the moments that I had and told those close to me that I loved them. There was beauty in my life even as I was battling this terrible cancer. I saw that. And if I was going to die, so be it. But I was going to spend my last moments cherishing love.”
By the second chemotherapy treatment, the tumor had disappeared—a good sign. She underwent two more treatments in Aurora and then flew to Houston for two months of radiation therapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center. She had lost 20 pounds during chemo in Colorado, and doctors in Houston warned her she could lose 20 more during radiation.
“I can’t lose that much weight because I need to make it back onto my rugby team and make it to the Olympics,” Potter told her doctors. And so during radiation, she would drink every high-calorie supplement she could find, sucking down every last drop to the point where she would feel like she was about to become physically sick.
One afternoon, Vikki King mentioned to a receptionist that her daughter was training to become an Olympic athlete. When Potter found out, she sat her mother down and gently said, “Will you please not tell anyone my story? I don’t want patients to feel like they have to be an Olympian to fight cancer.”
King nodded her head. And then Potter—smiling lovingly at her mother, her blue eyes flashing—added, “Remember, Mom, you have today. That’s all you have right now. Make the most if it, Mom. Just make the most of it.”
Eight weeks after her final radiation treatment, Jill and Carol flew to Portland, Oregon. They entered a half-marathon. At the sound of the starting gun, Jill took off in a sprint, feeling reborn, her legs pumping like high-revving pistons.
“Hold on, Jill!” Carol shouted. “We’ve got 13.1 miles to go! Pace yourself!”
“No way!” Jill replied. She was the happiest runner in all of Portland.
“I struggled to keep up with Jill,” Carol says. “That was the day when I knew she was well on her way back.”
She continues: “Jill is more relaxed now than she was before the cancer. She thinks every minute of every day, ‘Hey, I’m alive, and I get to play a sport. Life is good.’ She’s just enjoying the ride a lot more now.”
Kelly Griffin has a story to tell. This yarn, she proclaims, will reveal everything you need to know about Jillion Potter, her teammate on the Olympic team.
Griffin is sitting on a bench next to the practice field in Chula Vista. “In Jill’s very first practice back after the cancer, she decides to run the fitness test with us,” Griffin says. “She hasn’t even been cleared to play yet, but she runs anyway. It’s a grueling test. You run 30 seconds, you rest, you run more, and it goes on and on. She just crushed it. She was more fit than me. I was like, ‘Really, Jill? You beat cancer and now you just kicked my ass?’ The girl is unbelievable.”
She is back to 100 percent, but she knows that danger still lurks in the shadows. Potter must undergo tests every three months to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned. “I’m not out of the woods for five years,” she says. “The odds still are scary for me. But that’s why I’m as determined as ever to live in the moment.”
Potter is still sitting on a chair at the training center and soaking in the magnificent rolling-brown vistas of Southern California. She talks about one day opening a coffee shop in Denver with Carol. She describes how she’s already registered for a few woodworking classes she’ll take at a community college once she returns home from Rio. She explains that she’d like to personally handcraft the tables in her coffee shop.
As she looks at the faraway mountaintops on this golden June afternoon, her dreams are big. Her face is aglow with the sweetest of smiles as she contemplates her future.
Now freeze time and breathe in this moment, just as Potter is doing, over and over. Study this portrait of Jillion Potter, who is squinting into the sunlight and thinking about how lucky she is.
This still life right here…It’s one of the most beautiful you’ll ever see.