Coming back from cancer, Brazil rugby sevens star Raquel Kochhann ready to tackle her third Olympics

She heard her No. 10 being called, tapped hands with a teammate who was leaving the field, and ran into position for Brazil, a smile on her face.

She made a quick sign of the cross, rubbed her hands and held them up with fingers splayed to receive the ball. And then Raquel Kochhann nodded: Play on.

That also seems to be her life motto. A deep desire to chase her dreams has seen Kochhann overcome breast cancer, surgery, and months of follow-up treatment to return to the highest level of rugby sevens and have a shot at her third Olympics.

After more than 1 1/2 years on the sidelines, initially with an injured knee and then for her cancer recovery, Kochhann reappeared for Brazil in January at the world sevens series event in Perth. She helped Brazil reach the quarterfinals in Los Angeles, played in Hong Kong and in the series finale in Madrid.

Now she's preparing for the Paris Games, where women's sevens kicks off July 28.

The most difficult person to convince she’d be ready in time for Paris was her doctor “because of the complexity of the case," Kochhann says.

“He always supported me, but he was apprehensive and careful,” the 31-year-old Brazilian tells The Associated Press. “To this day, his heart is in his mouth whenever I take some kind of hit.”

Heavy hits are a regular occurrence in the condensed, fast-paced version of rugby known as sevens (because of the number of players on each team).

Upper-body collisions are frequent when players are either carrying the ball or tackling, which can make doctors nervous.

Not Kochhann. She believes she's done the work in the gym and in her recovery to prepare her body for anything the sport can throw at her. She also received medical clearance from the team.

In a social media post in late 2023 announcing her return to play, Kochhann urged followers to "play every game like it’s your last.”

“This phrase sounds cliché, but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, what if we don’t have another opportunity?” she posted. “Our fate is unpredictable. An ACL injury in May 2022 turned out to be a lengthy breast cancer treatment. A lot of learning and personal growth.”

Rugby roots

A dedicated soccer player as a young athlete with ambitions of wearing the famous Brazil jersey, Kochhann first tried rugby at the age of 19. She was instantly converted.

She debuted for Brazil in 2014, won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games the following year, and was there in 2016 in the host team when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut at Rio de Janeiro.

Her mother couldn’t attend the Olympic matches because she was dealing with breast cancer herself, but Kochhann reveled in the support from her sister, and thousands of new fans. The Tokyo Olympics were an altogether different experience as spectators were banned because of COVID-19 restrictions.

But she was determined and good enough to earn another Olympic experience, even when, while rehabbing her knee injury, she underwent scans for a lump in her breast and discovered it was malignant.

“Cancer wasn’t a shock, given my family’s medical history and genetics — and it could have happened at any moment in my life,” Kochhann said in a matter-of-fact interview for the world sevens series. “I went through a preventive bilateral mastectomy and moved to the oncology department. I had to stop my career and went through chemotherapy to prevent the further spread of cancer.”

All the while, health experts were telling her to stay physically active.

“Even if the therapy would bring me down physically,” she says, "I kept believing I could beat this ... and I did.”

Whatever transpires between now and late July, Kochhann wants her inspiring comeback to be a message “that everything in life always has a good side and a bad side.”

“Our recovery and how we live life will depend on which side we choose to look at. I could be sad, upset about the injury and then the cancer, but that would use a lot of energy, and I chose to focus that energy on recovery. Always seeing an opportunity in every difficulty.”

One of a kind

The easiest person to convince she could return to rugby was Brazil coach Will Broderick “who, like me, was eager to be able to train me and see me back on the field," Kochhann says.

Broderick, who has been coaching the Brazil women's sevens team since just before the Tokyo Olympics, felt like he barely had the right to assess Kochhann's comeback.

“Because it’s just so far above what you could imagine a human being be able to do,” Broderick says in a telephone interview with the AP. "We witnessed it firsthand — she trained hard through chemotherapy, through radiotherapy. She was at the training center every day.

“If she wasn’t training, she was at the training sessions, helping with the filming and coaching. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life."

Broderick always thought his playmaker would return but acknowledged there's always the lingering doubt.

“There’s so many things that could go wrong but she is probably one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met," he says. "To be honest, it’s phenomenal. Incredible. Then she comes back to train and how can I tell her … she needs to push harder, work. Who am I to say that?"

But Kochhann was willing to push harder. The tradeoff was Kochhann becoming an inspirational presence for other players.

“She’s matured all the way through and she doesn’t let the little things bother her too much anymore, like refereeing decisions or little errors," Broderick says. “She’s grown in that sense and how she handles the little setbacks because I guess that her perspective is completely different.”

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AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

John Pye, The Associated Press