A year after being diagnosed with cancer, Ariel Johnson makes her return to Club 7s Nationals

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The arrival of Jillion Potter in Rio de Janeiro to compete on rugby’s largest global stage has spread word of the Eagle’s triumphant defeat of cancer and her return to rugby prominence. Meanwhile, another female American loose forward, Ariel Johnson, has fended off her own bout with cancer, and prepares to make her return to the national stage when she plays for a title at the Aug. 13-14 USA Rugby Club 7s National Championships.

The 2015 Mid-Atlantic 7s Championship did not go as planned for Johnson. Her team, Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby, qualified for Nationals, but was forced to settle for the region’s No. 2 seed after falling to the Scion Sirens in the Final. The disappointing result quickly turned to concern when Johnson was rushed to a nearby hospital for what she thought might be a heat stroke. Instead, tests revealed tumors on her brain and around her left eye that were diagnosed as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Johnson, like so many American rugby players, discovered the game in college. As a transfer student from Eastern University, Johnson arrived at West Chester University in the fall of 2011, and was almost immediately propositioned to attend a rugby practice when she stepped foot on her new campus. In the spring of 2012, Johnson finally succumbed to pressure and began training with the Golden Rams Women’s Rugby team, and was a full-blown rugger by the time she began her second year at West Chester.

“When I first joined rugby I was a bit nervous and excited all at once,” said Johnson. “The nerves came from the fact that I didn’t know any of the rules, but my excitement of playing a contact sport got me to come back each day. I drew confidence from my comfort with the physicality of the sport.”

Playing inside center, Johnson took to the game in a hurry. Especially enjoying the physically demanding and mentally challenging aspects of the game, Johnson began to set individual goals for herself. In her first season playing rugby, Johnson declared that she wanted to make the regional All-Star team – and she did. In year two, Johnson placed a bull’s eye on the AIG Women’s Collegiate All-American team and by season’s end she was packing a bag to tour France with the very best players women’s college rugby had to offer. It was also on that tour that Johnson would be convinced of a position change to better fit her relentless work rate and aggression at the breakdown – flanker.

When Johnson’s eligibility at West Chester had expired she knew she did not want her rugby career to be over. After glancing at the local club rugby options, Johnson determined the women of NOVA were the best fit for her – even if it meant driving three hours one-way to train with one of the Mid-Atlantic’s premier sides.

“I fell in love,” Johnson recalled of her first training session with NOVA. “I was originally just playing sevens to keep fit for 15s, but I ended up falling in love with the atmosphere of the team. The program was a really good fit for me.”

Limited to 15s in college, Johnson took to the fast-paced code of sevens, and was pleasantly surprised to now be a member of one of the most decorated women’s sevens teams in the country. The squad’s sevens supremacy made its July 18 loss to Scion at the 2015 MAC 7s Championship extremely disappointing, even though the team secured its fifth consecutive invitation to Club 7s Nationals. Unfortunately for Johnson, she would not make the trip to Iowa for the Championship event.

The cancerous tumors found on Johnson’s brain and face returned her to West Chester in order to receive the best care possible at the Abramson Cancer Center in nearby Philadelphia. Initial treatment began in August of 2015, and included taking medication once or twice a week through an IV. Positive reports first returned from her treatment as her tumors began to shrink. However, after a few months, the tumor around Johnson’s eye ballooned to a size much larger than when originally discovered, motioning her doctors to prescribe a much more aggressive form of treatment, which included chemotherapy.

For the one-time dancer turned flanker, losing 25 pounds from chemo and living a life in which getting out of bed in the morning was an immense challenge brought Johnson’s spirits to an all-time low.

“When you have a tumor on your brain, it’s difficult to do anything without getting dizzy, lightheaded, or feel that something is wrong,” Johnson noted. “For me, that was frustrating to not be able to do anything.”

In November, Johnson’s return to rugby and a more positive outlook began where her career started – West Chester. Johnson received a phone call from her college coach, Tony DeRemer, encouraging her former All-American to come out to the team’s practices and assist the Golden Rams from the sidelines. Johnson agreed and experienced mental and spiritual relief from the smell of the pitch, getting the ball back in her hands, and, most importantly, socializing with other rugby players.

“Along with my family and friends, the support from the rugby community has been vital to my return to the pitch,” said Johnson.

With rugby back in her life, Johnson persevered through months of chemotherapy. When NOVA began training in June for its sevens campaign, Johnson was there.

“Even before Ariel finished her last chemo treatment she was a regular at sevens practice,” said NOVA 7s Head Coach Dana Creager. “With permission from her doctors, she participated in everything that she could physically do. She played touch, ran drills, and even reffed the contact drills.”

Eyeing a mid-summer clearance for contact, Johnson continued to drive six hours round trip to do all she could for her NOVA teammates at training until good news began to arrive. In the beginning of July, Johnson’s oncologist informed her that she was in remission. On July 21, she was cleared for contact.

“Ariel was completely convinced that she would be cleared before the season was over, but I had my doubts,” admitted Creager. “I wasn’t sure it was realistic to play high-level rugby just a little over a month after her last chemo treatment.”

Johnson, however, was not only sure she could get back on the field, but was confident she could positively impact one of the best sevens teams in the country. In fact, Johnson’s time patrolling the sidelines while waiting for clearance from her doctors gave the forward a new perspective to watch her team in action. Johnson was impressed with NOVA’s improved team speed – an ingredient that team has lacked in previous seasons – but noticed adjustments required on defense.

“We needed to be stronger, we need to come up harder, we need somebody to lead that, and for me being a flanker – that’s where I excel,” Johnson said of the team’s defense. “That’s what I love about rugby. I love the physicality of the sport. I love the breakdowns. I love getting lower than somebody and overpowering them. It’s not that the team didn’t have that, I just felt that I could help and lead that aspect of our play.”

Johnson would get her chance to launch the defensive attack she’d be envisioning at the July 23 Monk Vaughn 7s – the fourth and final Mid-Atlantic qualifying tournament for Club 7s National Championships. Two days after being cleared for contact and almost a year to the day since being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Johnson joined her teammates in Richmond, Va., in an attempt to qualify NOVA for Club 7s Nationals.

“The drive that morning from Pennsylvania to Virginia was pretty emotional,” remembered Johnson. “I had some nerves.”

The nerves continued into NOVA’s first pool match. Johnson did not play like her usual self and was pulled for a reserve earlier than she had hoped. Between pool games, Johnson challenged herself to do what she had set out to do – set the tone defensively.

In NOVA’s second match of the day, Johnson was back to her old self.

Ariel Johnson (front row, first from left) with Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby’s sevens team

“I might have been more nervous for her than she was, but when she stepped out on the field it was like she just picked up where she left off last year,” Creager witnessed. “She excels in contact, and having her on the field brought up our level of physical toughness immediately. It was amazing to watch.”

Being such a big fan of the tackle area, Johnson can clearly recall the first lick she got to put on an opponent in over a year. In the first game of the day, an errant pass was aimed for Johnson but intercepted by a leaping opponent. In a split second, Johnson went from attack to defense, and intelligently allowed the opposition’s feet to hit the ground before letting her instincts take over.

“I just put my shoulder into her and it felt so good,” Johnson happily reminded herself.

NOVA would eventually lose to Scion in the Finals, but its second-place finish was still good enough to qualify the Virginia side for a record sixth National Championship appearance.

“As a team that’s not what we wanted,” Johnson said of the July 23 qualifying event. “But for me personally, I made myself proud.”

NOVA now finds itself in a challenging Pool B at Nationals, where it will play Chicago Griffins, Boston Rugby, and a Seattle Saracens team that finished second at last year’s Championship event and qualified this summer as the No. 1 seed out of the Pacific North.

“We knew whoever came out of the Pacific North was going to be tough,” Johnson said of her team’s pool draw.

Qualifying for the Cup Quarterfinals at Nationals is no easy task, so rather than worry about their opposition, Johnson and NOVA are concerning themselves with what they can control.

“We don’t like to stress ourselves out over what our competition is doing,” explained Johnson. “Our coaches and captains stress working on our game plan.”

With her quest to defeat cancer and return to the pitch completed, Johnson is preparing to play in her third Club 7s National Championship event later this month, and formulating her next set of goals. Included in those goals is going back to school to work towards her degree in Biology from West Chester University, and possibly making a push towards consideration for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 in Ireland.

“Ultimately, I still want to play rugby – especially at the higher level,” said Johnson. “If possible, I would love to continue playing for NOVA, and do what I can to also help the West Chester team out this fall. Regardless of what happens, I’m extremely grateful for the support I’ve received, and look forward to a healthier future!”