On Aug. 17, 2014, I finally reached the peak of a mountain I had been climbing for some time: I was in Paris, wearing a USA jersey, playing rugby in the World Cup for my age group. After that, I was planning to return to the states and go back to training, in hopes of making the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Then, three weeks later, I heard one word that changed everything: cancer. And then, more specifically, “Synovial Sarcoma, Stage 3.” There aren’t many words that stop you in your tracks and uproot your entire life, but “cancer” is one of them.
My life changed dramatically and quickly. I went from my rigorous schedule at the Olympic Training Center to four-day stints at a hospital getting chemo. From flying all over the world for tournaments to flying to Texas for treatment. And yes, that part was pretty awful. Even with all of the love and support I had from my friends and family (and really, the whole rugby community), cancer treatment takes a toll on your body and your heart that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
But here is what they don’t tell you about cancer: Life still happens—the good parts, too—even when you’re sick. You still get to make memories and laugh until you cry and try new things. It may be different than before, and the shadow of cancer may be lurking behind you, but magically, life still happens. And you appreciate it even more post-diagnosis.
During my one-year hiatus for treatment and recovery, I got to do quite a bit. I continued taking classes to get my MBA. I hosted 14 of my closest friends for Thanksgiving. I went snowboarding in Tahoe and ran a half-marathon (with my doctor’s approval). I got to make a home with my wife.
I still played rugby, I still trained (again, with my doctor’s OK), and I still dreamed about making it to the Olympics. But I didn’t let the fear of not realizing that dream stop me from enjoying every day that I got to wake up and be with the people I love.
Because here’s the thing: Bad things—unexpected things—happen, even to people who feel like they’re on top of the world. Life doesn’t just happen when you’re on top. It happens when you’re at the bottom of the mountain, too. When you are dusty and scraped up and tearful and scared, life is happening there, too. And if you spend too much time looking back up at where you used to be, you’ll miss all the beauty and clarity that can come with being knocked down.
Jillion Potter is captain of the U.S. Women’s Rugby Team. To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Rio Olympics begin on August 5.