Getting the chance to play for SA at the Olympics is an experience he’ll never forget – but not so long ago, he was wondering if he’d ever be able to play rugby again.
Ronald Brown was on the verge of making his Springbok Sevens debut in 2019 when a cancer diagnosis forced him to put his career on hold.
For two weeks he’d been silently managing a chest pain with over-the-counter medication in the hopes the pain would subside and he could eventually run out in the green and gold.
“I didn’t want to say anything to anyone because I really wanted to play,” the 25-year-old tells us. “So I was just managing the pain on my own.”
But shortly before the tournament began, Ronald was pulled from the team due to his health concerns. A biopsy was done on his neck which revealed he had stage-two Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
This is a cancer that
affects the part of the immune system known as the lymphatic system. As the
cancer progresses, it limits the body's ability to fight infection.
“I was speechless,” he says of hearing the news. “I felt gutted because I saw this as my big break and now I wouldn’t be able to play internationally for my country.”
It was a bitter blow for Ronald, who hails from the small Western Cape town of Montagu. For years he’d lived, slept and breathed rugby after landing a sports scholarship at University of Johannesburg where he studied towards a bachelor’s degree in education. In 2014 he was recruited to play for the Lions in 2014.
He moved to Stellenbosch in 2018 and later that year joined the SAS Sevens Academy, which is a five-month high-performance programme that develops players.
After working so hard to prove himself, it was a bitter blow to receive a cancer diagnosis just as he’d made it into the national Sevens squad. But he had no other choice but to hang up his rugby boots for eight months while undergoing weekly chemotherapy sessions.
“The first two sessions were okay; I didn’t have any side-effects. But from the third one onwards I got very nauseous and couldn’t keep any food down.”
Ronald says the nausea and vomiting lasted at least two days after receiving chemo. He also suffered terrible headaches.
“I lost 11kg during those eight months,” he recalls. “That’s a lot for a rugby player.”
Because his body was
too weak to train, Ronald attempted to keep fit by doing static training, which
largely consists of stretching exercises.
It was a challenging time but he says his faith in God as well the support of his family and teammates kept him going.
“We have such an inclusive culture at the Sevens that you feel at home. When difficulties happen it’s easier to get over because of how the guys and the management support you.”
When he was finally able to return, Ronald eased back into training with a programme specifically designed for him.
A month later, he was given the green light to rejoin the team. And it didn’t take him long to stamp his mark.
He’s still on a high after returning from the Tokyo Olympics.
“After what I’ve been through, representing my country on an international level is sweet,” he says. “There are many people who don’t survive cancer but here I am, I survived and I get to live my dream.”
He would have liked the team to do better but it just wasn’t to be. They finished fifth overall, much to the disappointment of fans.
Ronald says the Blitzboks
were as prepared as they could ever be but the minute they landed in Japan,
“things went south”.
Coach Neil Powell tested positive for Covid-19 on arrival and had to isolate while the team continued their pre-game training.
There was also fear among the team when two soccer players, Thabiso Monyane and Kamohelo Mahlatsi, as well as video analyst Mario Masha tested positive.
Fortunately everyone in the team remained healthy and they could compete in the Games.
“The Olympic experience wasn’t that good and we had a lot of ups and downs. But where I come from, as an individual, I feel proud and honoured to have represented my country at that level.”
Ronald says more than anything, his experience with cancer has taught him to be patient.
“As soon as I found out I had cancer, I wanted to get it done and over with so that I could get back onto the field. But it taught me to focus on what’s in front of me.”
And that is why he’s sharing his story – in the hope it will serve as encouragement to others.
“If I can inspire even just one or two boys and girls, no matter their age, to overcome a struggle in their life, I will be happy,” he says.