You’ll often hear athletes say sport changed their life, but in a very real way it saved Abi Burton’s.
The rugby sevens star featured in the third Sporty AF (And Female) episode where four Team GB athletes discussed what strength means to them and how they’ve dealt with pressure in their careers.
Burton opened up about her greatest setback, a struggle with encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disease that left her in a medically induced coma for three and a half weeks.
In the spring of 2022, the 23-year-old began having seizures and was eventually sectioned with a misdiagnosis of stress-induced psychosis.
“You go into this really manic aggressive behaviour,” Burton explained. “Off the rugby pitch, I’m really timid, I’m like a teddy bear.
“But I was really aggressive to my parents, I was fighting the nurses and doctors to get away from me, ripping bannisters off the walls in our house.”
After spending 26 days wrongly sectioned, Burton was diagnosed with autoimmune MDA receptor encephalitis – an illness where the body mistakenly attacks the brain. She was moved to the hospital and due to her agitated state, placed in a coma.
When the Tokyo Olympian woke up 25 days later after chemotherapy, plasma exchanges and two bouts of pneumonia, she had lost 20 kilos. The experience left her with a newfound respect for her athletic body, and she credits it with saving her life.
“I probably wouldn’t have survived if I wasn’t as strong as I was before physically and muscularly,” she said. “I could lose that amount of weight because I was so strong.
“If I didn’t love being in the gym and love being a powerful athlete, I probably would’ve come out of that coma a very different person.
“We always say my mum only weighs about 60 kilos – she doesn’t have 20 kilos to lose, she would’ve died. But the fact that I could probably saved me in the end because my body is so strong and powerful.”
Illness didn’t just give Burton a new perspective on her body, it altered the way she views setbacks in rugby and her identity as an athlete.
“It’s completely changed my outlook on life,” she said. “I’m not just a rugby player anymore.”
“Before Tokyo, if I hadn’t been selected to go it probably would’ve absolutely destroyed me but now after being ill it’s made me realise that rugby isn’t everything.
“If you’re holding sand and you grip it tight, it just squeezes out – that was me with rugby.
“But now, because I have a whole new perspective on life and I want to be healthy and happy, I don’t grip it as tight anymore.
“Actually, I have more sand in my hand than I ever did before.”
It was a long journey for Burton to finally return to international rugby in June of this year but one she took to with vigour, determined to not let her illness hold her back.
“I went through a long, really intensive rehab process,” she said. “I’m a bit mad so I thought that I could do anything.
“There were times when I was on the Wattbike and going fully purple, my heartrate was pushing nearly 200bpm and my mum is screaming at me to get off and I’m like ‘No I need to do this – I need to do this for me'.
“That experience was probably quite scary for my mum and my family. They didn’t nearly lose their rugby player, they nearly lost Abi – their little girl.
“But I knew what I needed to do to not let my illness win. I wanted to be better than the person I was before.
“I wanted to do it for myself. I wanted to do everything in my power to get to that point.”
While recovering in hospital, Burton had a whiteboard where she wrote out her goals for the future, and while the timelines were ambitious, they’re being ticked off one at a time.
“When I made my international return, I looked at the board and I kind of laughed to myself,” Burton said. “I tried to do that within six months but actually it took me over a year.”
“When I ran out for GB again for the first time I was so happy, I did cry. I felt like I was whole again. Like I wasn’t missing a part of me.
“There’s bits on the board about me being able to finish university and I’ve just finished my degree.
“Me being able to go to Paris next year – that’s on there. I was absolutely gutted after coming fourth in Tokyo, it really did break me at the time but this season I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to put the best foot forward to go and win a medal in Paris.”
Despite the pain and struggle caused by her illness, Burton sees it as integral to who she is today.
“I wouldn’t change that journey because it’s made me so resilient and so mentally and physically strong that I’m in some of the best shape possible going into this next season,” she said. “It’s made me a better rugby player.
“But, you know, I wouldn’t have gotten better as quickly if I wasn’t a little bit crazy.”