Cancer survivor Jillion Potter inspires U.S. teammates

Jillion Potter

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Jillion Potter has overcome cancer and a serious neck injury that kept her out of rugby for long periods of time, giving her the kind of perspective that doesn’t allow a narrow loss to Fiji to overshadow her Olympic debut.

The 30-year-old United States forward is up to a challenge, and there are still plenty of those at the Olympics, where rugby is being played for the first time in 92 years.

Potter played both games for the Americans on Saturday, wearing the No. 1 jersey and helping the team overcome a 12-7 loss to Fiji with a 48-0 win over Colombia that kept them in contention for the quarterfinals in the women’s rugby sevens tournament.

Her background offers some inspiration for her teammates, even if she prefers to talk about things other than the months of chemotherapy to treat a rare, Stage III synovial sarcoma that kept her sidelined for the 2014-15 world sevens series. Or the traumatic neck injury that kept her out of the World Cup in 2010.

“We’re always looking to inspire each other,” Potter said. “My teammates do an excellent job inspiring themselves and each other. We’ll bring each other up.”

Her advice was simple after the unexpected early loss: “Stay present and continue forward. Learn from our mistakes. At the end of the day, we’re still in it.”

And so they are. The Americans play top-ranked Australia in their last pool match on Sunday, and have the chance to advance with a win, a draw or possibly even a loss. The top two teams in each of the three groups advance, and the two teams with the best third-place records will also make the playoffs. Fiji lost 36-0 to Australia in the last match on Day 1 but is likely to finish with two wins — facing struggling Colombia in its last Pool A match — adding to the pressure on the Americans.

At least they’ll know the equation before the match, as theirs is the last group game. In other big matches before then, Canada and Britain — both unbeaten — will meet to determine the top spot in Pool C and New Zealand will play France in Pool B.

“We knew based on losing that first one we had to come out and have a big point differential to have a chance for the quarters,” United States captain Kelly Griffin said.

In terms of the group stage, “we don’t necessarily control our own destiny, but we have to remember we can control only what we can control — going out and playing the best game possible against Australia.”

The Australians dominated the world sevens series last season, winning three of the five tournaments and reaching the final to replace New Zealand as No. 1 in the world. The Americans placed sixth in the world series, well behind the top four teams, but the players aren’t giving up hope of a medal just yet, knowing that the attention that comes with a strong run in the Olympics will help continue the growth of the emerging rugby markets.

“It’s phenomenal. The Olympics provides a wonderful platform for rugby,” Potter said. “We’re hoping that more and more people start playing the game. We’re excited to share the love of rugby to the world.”

Griffin packs down beside Potter in the scrums, so has a close view of the technical qualities and experience her teammate brings into the game.

“Honestly, Jill is Jill. She hates the cancer question,” Griffin said. “She just goes out and plays like the rest of us.”

Kathryn Johnson, a third member of the U.S. scrum, said Potter’s recovery and return to action was an inspiration, but every player provided motivation.

“Everyone has had their own path. It’s been tough for everyone,” Johnson said. “And it’s exciting — it’s crazy how we all ended up on the same spot.”

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