Stepping out for New Zealand at a packed Eden Park in the World Cup 2023 opener was Rebekah Stott's "biggest motivator" when she was battling her way back from cancer. With the match against Norway now days away, Stott is back in the national team setup and on course to fulfill her dream.
But there was a moment on her return to the Football Ferns side in the SheBelieves Cup last year that meant just as much, in a very different way. Stott, 29, had documented her fight against Hodgkin's lymphoma on Instagram and through her blog to distract herself and try to help others in a similar position.
One of those was Alison Gale, a US football fan who had been diagnosed with the same condition just six days later and had seen Stott play in the NWSL for OL Reign. The two connected online but had never met until that night last Februray, when Gale held up a banner of support as Stott came off the bench against Iceland.
"It was just such a cool moment," the Brighton and Hove Albion defender told DW. "That was the first time I've ever met her and it was just like: 'She's helped me through something crazy. I've helped her through something crazy, and it's just cool to be able to have that relationship through something that's really not fun.'"
Having left Brighton during the 2020-21 season to return to Melbourne for her treatment, Stott had to spend two weeks in isolation as part of Australian COVID-19 restrictions. It was there she found out her specific diagnosis.
Support network invaluable in isolation
"I think I'd already processed it. I knew it was cancer," she said. "So it was more about just talking to people on the phone. I had my teammates, I had my friends and I had the doctors to talk to as well. So I didn't find it too hard."
Hodgkin's lymphoma is one of the more easily treated cancers, but Stott still had to undergo four months of chemotherapy before being told she was in remission in July 2021. As soon as she got the news, Stott was plotting a course back to doing what she loved.
But, as taxing as the illness and treatments were, Stott said the road back to the levels of fitness required for a professional athlete was even more rocky than she'd imagined.
"I don't think I expected it to be as hard as it has been. Just how long it would take my body to really get back to normal. I look at pictures now of when I had just finished treatment and when I was playing in the A-League women in Australia [in December 2021] and I don't recognize myself, I'm blowing up like a fish," she said.
"I hadn't done anything for four or five months. So it was the conditioning of my body, the legs. I had no muscles, I had no power. And then obviously aerobically I had to start from scratch. But then also the fatigue was crazy. So I would do a gym session and I'd be fatigued for at least two or three days. It would take me a lot longer to recover."
But recover she did. "It's kind of crazy to see like the difference between after treatment and where I'm at now. It's like the old Stotty is back, in terms of my body and my strength."
Back to business in Brighton and Auckland
Having returned to Brighton in the Women's Super League with unfinished business, Stott cuts a laidback, approachable figure. But the drive and desire that fueled her rapid return is never too far from the surface. A tumultuous season on England's south coast saw the club narrowly avoid relegation despite a significant investment in facilities, staff and the playing group. But Stott didn't doubt her decision for a second.
"When I was going through treatment, my one goal was to get back to playing. So when that opportunity came up, I was like: ‘Yes, let's get back on track and restart my career.'"
Despite a few injuries along the way she's certainly done that, and has already regained her place at the heart of the New Zealand defense. A strong World Cup campaign, at least progression from a group that also contains Norway, Switzerland and the Philippines, is important to both the team and the sport in New Zealand. But even in a country consumed by rugby above all else, Stott has great expectations.
"Our last tour was in New Zealand, so it was cool to be able to see the hype around it. Yes, New Zealand isn't a football country, but I think we saw for the Women's Rugby World Cup last year, it was incredible, The New Zealanders got around it and made it so cool for the girls, so I'm expecting it to be pretty big."
That opener, against Norway, will certainly be big. But between thoughts of how to stop Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen and the roar 50,000 home fans in Auckland, Stott may just cast her mind back to that American with the banner of support and all that it meant.
Edited by James Thorogood