SI 60: The Courage of Jill Costello
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to run in the magazine. Today's selection is "The Courage of Jill Costello," by Chris Ballard, which originally ran in the Nov. 29, 2010 issue.
After a promising junior season as a coxswain at Cal, she learned she was in the late stages of cancer. The next year was her best.
Next spring the NCAA women's crew season will begin again. On lakes and rivers across the country, fleets of skinny boats will skitter over the water like giant insects, their wooden legs moving in unison. Happen upon a race, and your eyes will be drawn to the powerful women in the bow of each boat, the ones with backs like oak doors who tear great gashes in the water, pushing and pulling and exhaling clouds of carbon dioxide until their chests are aflame and their temples thump. For a moment, though, it's worth shifting your gaze to the stern, to the wispy figure of the coxswain. She'll be the only woman facing forward, the only one without an oar. Indeed, she'll barely even move, instead just sitting there ... talking. If you are unfamiliar with the sport, you might wonder about this small woman's purpose, wonder if she can even be considered an athlete. After all, how can you be an athlete when all you do is talk? What difference can a woman like that make, anyway?
You'd be amazed.
It started as a dull ache in Jill Costello's abdomen, the kind you get after a night of suspect Chinese food. Only it didn't go away. It was June 2009, and the Cal crew had just returned from the NCAA championships in Cherry Hill, N.J. The Bears had finished second, behind Stanford, continuing a remarkable run of six top four finishes in seven years.
Jill came back to Berkeley elated. She had coxed the third boat at nationals, which meant she had a good shot at being in the top varsity boat as a senior. As for the nagging pain in her bloated stomach, she assumed it was stress-related -- the product of late nights cramming for finals and early mornings practicing on the water. So when her good friend and teammate Adrienne Keller headed to the trainer to receive treatment for a balky back a few days after nationals, Jill decided to tag along; maybe she could pick up some pills before heading out for the summer.
When the two women walked into the training room, the tall, broad-shouldered Keller dwarfed Jill, who was small and thin, with porcelain cheeks, a cascade of brown hair and an ever-present grin. Looking at the pair, you'd never have guessed they were teammates.
Understand, Jill never set out to be a coxswain. Nobody does. Growing up in San Francisco, she'd competed in the same sports as her friends: soccer, field hockey, cross-country. She had enough talent as a dancer to perform with the San Francisco Ballet as a nine-year-old, but she quit when told she'd need to devote herself to it full time. She loved being part of a team too much for that.
There was only one problem. While her two older brothers kept growing, each eventually surpassing six feet, Jill stayed small. And no matter how hard she tried, it was tough to be a soccer goalie when she was the shortest kid on the field. By the time she was a senior at St. Ignatius College Prep, Jill had topped out at 5'4" and 110 pounds and was focusing her college aspirations on crew, the only sport in which her size was an asset.
The fit was more than physical. The coxswain's role is twofold. She's expected to steer the boat, factoring in the wind, tides and at times the uneven stroking of her crew. (All coxes fear the moment when a rower "catches a crab" -- that is, snags an oar in the water on the return stroke, jolts the boat and even, in extreme cases, ejects herself.) The coxswain also acts as a surrogate coach, relaying information, determining strategy and providing motivation.
This Jill could do. She'd always liked being in charge. One of her first phrases as a toddler was, Me do. Not long after, she began bossing around her older brothers. The way Jill saw it, life was too short to wait for things to come to you. While most of her teammates at Cal had a tough enough time juggling crew and school, Jill worked with Habitat for Humanity, was in a sorority and was vice president of the Panhellenic council, which governs campus-wide Greek life. At times her mother, Mary, found Jill's intensity exhausting. Even when shopping for clothes, Jill wouldn't buy a pair of pants unless they were perfect.
Such traits might have been grating in someone else, but pretty much everyone liked Jill. How could you not? If you looked sad, she'd puff out her cheeks, pull out her tiny ears and make monkey faces until you laughed. If you were the new kid, she was the first to come up and start a conversation. When her roommate and best friend at Cal, K.C. Oakley, left school for a semester to go to Colorado, Jill texted her every day to say good morning and good night. It was Jill who nicknamed Cal crew head coach Dave O'Neill the Coif for his gravity-defying puff of blond hair and did a perfect imitation of the "jiggle-jaw" face he made when exasperated. (From anyone else O'Neill might have chafed at the jokes, but his bond with Jill was so strong that he asked her to be the godmother of his son, Dash.)
A goofball? Sure, but a dedicated one. As a sophomore Jill went to the DMV and took the test for a Class B license so she could drive the team van, and then she rose at 5:30 a.m. six days a week to pick up rowers for practice. And while most coxes avoid workouts -- after all, their only physical requirement is to make weight (110 pounds for women) -- Jill joined the team for cardio sessions and training runs. "She's as good an athlete as I've ever had as a coxswain," says O'Neill.
That's why no one thought twice about her stomach pain, including Jill. It came as a shock, then, when Linda (Smitty) Smith, the team trainer, told her that Friday after nationals, "Got some bad news, Jill. Turns out your lab tests are out of whack. Your white blood cell count is pretty high. You need to get to an ER, and you need to do it tonight. It's probably nothing serious, but better safe than sorry."
Jill called her mother and her aunt Kathy Morello, both nurses, and they drove her to the emergency room at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. There Jill received a blur of diagnoses, each more frightening than the next: First she was told she had a serious infection, then grapefruit-sized cysts on her ovaries and, a few hours later and most ominously, masses in her lung, liver, clavicle and one breast. Radiologists came from across the hospital to peer at the results, disbelieving: A perfectly healthy 21-year-old nonsmoker with no family history of the disease had lung cancer, which three days later would be diagnosed as stage IV, the most advanced form. In just a few days Jill had gone from being a carefree college student to being told she probably had nine months to live.
There is no such thing as a good cancer, but lung cancer is just about the worst. The survival rate is 15.5%, and making matters worse, the disease comes with a stigma. Patients with lung cancer are assumed to have earned it, having inhaled toxins for years. Yet 20% of women diagnosed with lung cancer each year -- about 21,000 in 2010, roughly the same number as new cases of ovarian cancer -- never smoked. Because of lung cancer's reputation as a self-induced illness and its low survival rate, it rarely attracts big research money. In the last 40 years the survival rate hasn't budged.
Theoretically, at least, Jill stood as good a chance as anyone else of surviving. She was young and fit, so she could endure treatments that most other patients -- whose average age is 71 -- couldn't. The chemo began within the week. Jill was told, as she wrote in her online journal, to use only baby shampoo and soft toothbrushes, to get those protein shakes down and that weight up, to try on this wig and that hat, and to stock up on a list of drugs so long you'd think I was a dealer. Her summer plans went from hiking in Tahoe to being spoon-fed blueberries in bed by Aunt Kathy.
Jill had always liked being in charge. Life was too short to wait for things to come to her.
When she asked her doctors about rejoining the team, they looked at her as if she were crazy. Crew? She'd need all her strength just to make it through each day. Jill didn't care. She told her mom she saw cancer as "just another thing on my plate." Besides, she'd had three goals for the better part of her adult life: to graduate from Cal, to cox the first boat and to win nationals. She saw no reason to change them.
Rowing appeals to certain personality types. Converted swimmers do well at it, for example, because they are accustomed to monotonous practices. As O'Neill says, "It's a fitness sport, not a skill sport," which is another way of saying it's about desire. Consider: Cal has one of the best programs in the country, but its team includes both Olympians and women who are just discovering crew -- as if the 12th man on the Duke basketball team were learning the game a month before the season.
The rewards are few. Crew has no professional league, no endorsement contracts, little glory even at big events. Rare is the sports fan who can name even one Olympic rower. What's more, crew is rooted in suffering. As David Halberstam wrote in The Amateurs, his excellent book about 1984 Olympic hopefuls, "It was part of the oarsman's unwritten code that one did not mention the pain. That was considered unseemly and, worse, it might magnify the pain and make it more threatening and more tangible. It was as if by not talking about it, the pain might become less important."
Few sports, then, rely so much on inner fortitude. It is the coxswain's job to intrude upon each rower's silent battle, to find a way to get the most out of eight disparate personalities. O'Neill, a former rower at Boston College, understands the difficulty of this task. A thin, energetic 41-year-old whose staccato laugh masks the seriousness with which he approaches his job, O'Neill likes to say that "there is no defense in rowing." So while bitter rival Stanford has sent assistant coaches to scout Cal -- marking the team's splits and the timing of its "moves" (power strokes) -- O'Neill never changes strategy from race to race. He likens his approach to that of a golfer who plays the course, not the opposition. (O'Neill even refers to rival crews not by their school names but by their colors: Stanford is Red. Virginia is Orange.)
When it all comes together and eight oars are in sync, a crew can reach a Zenlike moment referred to as swing, when the boat seems to lift out of the water. This, more than anything, is the goal of rowing, when the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. O'Neill's job is to put together boats that can achieve this chemistry, and it is a constant juggling act. At major competitions such as nationals, points are awarded to each boat in three 2,000-meter races: the varsity eight (the boat with the eight strongest oars and the top coxswain), the second eight and, finally, the four, a smaller craft with only four rowers in which the cox must lie supine in the bow. This means that from his pool of almost 50 rowers O'Neill can choose only 20 to compete, and from his eight coxswains, only three.
More so than most crew coaches, O'Neill recruits coxes. If a prospect is shy, she doesn't stand a chance. He wants a firm handshake and a ready opinion. He wants leaders who are prepared to sacrifice for the team, and he's a staunch believer that there is no place in crew for prima donnas. When recruits ask him what it's like to be on the Cal team, O'Neill is fond of saying, "In one word: hard. In two words: really hard."
This is his way of weeding out the women who aren't sure about the sport or who want to gain admission to Cal through crew and then, a year later, quit the team. When he gave Jill his one-word, two-words speech, she didn't blink.
"Cool," she said. "That's the kind of team I want to be on."
There are plenty of clichés about team sports, about the mystical nature of bonding and camaraderie. Sometimes they're even true. When Jill learned of her diagnosis, most of her teammates had already gone home for the summer. For many that meant Los Angeles; for others, such as Iva Obradovic, an Olympic-level rower, it meant Serbia. Still, within weeks, under the guidance of O'Neill, the team had filmed and sent her two videos. One was a collage of testimonials, the other an inspired mélange of karaoke and air guitar to the tune of Andrew W.K.'s feel-good song Got to Do It. As W.K. sang, "When you're down on your luck, you gotta do it," rowers strummed their oars and assistant coaches played the drums on steering wheels. Watching from her hospital bed, IV lines protruding from her arms, Jill was overcome by emotion.
The support was only beginning. When Jill went home from the hospital, she felt as if the team had gone with her. During that summer and fall the Costellos' modest two-story house in southwest San Francisco often looked like a commune. Twenty, 30 kids -- Cal rowers, Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sisters, classmates from St. Ignatius, friends from the Bears' rugby team -- camped out there. The Costellos would return from chemo appointments to find piles of food on their doorstep, full meals of salad and pasta and chicken. Letters and e-mails poured in from rowers at Princeton, Stanford and Yale. Rivalries evaporated on the spot. The Stanford coach contacted Jill and said, "Whatever you need, just let me know." Her response: Help her get in touch with this one oncologist at Stanford. Within a week the president of the university had assigned his assistant to Jill. Give her whatever access she needs, he said.
On June 14 Jill began a blog just so she could keep everyone up to date. In unflinching detail she described her treatment: the radiation and the body molds and the chemo. Well, it's Day 11, one entry read, and despite the warnings to prepare for extreme nausea, vomiting, low platelet count, depression, poor appetite, constipation, mouth sores, and numbness/tingling, I've just been dealing with some aches and fatigue. I guess this cancer wasn't aware that I'm used to doing six-minute elbow bridges, have sat in the bow of a boat in eight inches of freezing water for an entire two-hour practice, have climbed Half Dome three times in under 3 1/2 hours, and can hold my own as 60 girls attack a feast of Kappa study snacks during finals.
While some patients might be embarrassed by the invasive treatments, Jill, ever the competitor, considered it a source of pride to weather each new round. That's why she had her mom and aunt keep track of every pinprick and every IV, the numbers scratched into a notebook. Then, when those became too numerous, she settled for a record of every treatment. When the alumni magazine at St. Ignatius wrote up her story and sent her an advance copy, she read it with pride, then immediately e-mailed the writer. Thanks for the story, she wrote, but you got the number of treatments wrong. It's 14, not nine.
Just as she had directed her boat, Jill now drove her treatment. She spent hours researching drugs. She e-mailed two top oncologists at UC San Francisco so often and struck up such a relationship with them that she began her messages, "Hi, boys!" With Heather Wakelee, the Stanford oncologist, she exchanged texts and took particular glee in pointing out whenever a Cardinal team lost.
As all-encompassing as her treatments were, though, Jill couldn't get rowing out of her mind. When school started again in the fall her teammates began informal 6 a.m. workouts. While the rest of Berkeley sipped Peet's coffee and blinked its way through the fog, 50 young women in spandex met in the ergonomic room, a cold, bare space under the track stadium. As techno music thumped, the girls warmed up and, on O'Neill's cue, all began to row as one, like one giant organism with ponytails. Jill used to love those moments, walking from machine to machine, offering encouragement, checking erg scores and then, when the workout was done, drawing laughs by mimicking her friends, the tiny girl on the big rowing machine. Now, staring out at the Pacific during short walks on the beach with her mom, Jill thought about being on the water again. O'Neill had told her he'd save a spot on the team for her. What he didn't expect was that she'd take him up on it.
The winter brought encouraging news: The mass in her liver had shrunk, as had the tumor in her left lung. Still, the unrelenting treatments were taking a toll. Jill was back living on campus and taking two classes, but she spent a lot of time napping and used a scooter to get from class to class. The only way I can describe the fatigue, she wrote, is like waking up the morning after running a marathon, but not having trained for the marathon, so your whole body is sore, weak, and achy. Most of all, she hated not being able to schedule her life.
She had delighted in organizing her world, color-coding and endlessly updating the calendar on her iPhone, but now she was at the mercy of her body. She'd been the kind of girl who told her boyfriend at Cal, Bryce Atkinson, a tall and handsome former rower, to start planning a Saturday-night date a week ahead of time. Funny story, how they met. She'd chased Atkinson down when she was a sophomore, back when he was intent on not having a girlfriend. "Here's my number," she said one night, smiling and holding out a piece of paper. "You better use it." He was smart enough to comply. The two bonded over rowing, spent weekends in Tahoe, nights eating sushi. By junior year he was at every one of her meets, roaring from the shore.
Maybe it was the cancer, maybe maturity, maybe a combination of the two. Jill was now a better coxswain.
Now, knowing it sounded nuts, Jill was telling Atkinson and her former roommate, Oakley, that she wanted to rejoin the crew team. She needed the connection. She'd kept in touch with her teammates during what they called "family dinners," at which a core of seniors and juniors would meet at someone's house each week. At one she brought the body mold she'd used during radiation treatments to use as a piñata. The rowers all took turns swinging at it, as if trying to smash the cancer right out of Jill.
In February she talked to O'Neill about returning. There would be plenty of obstacles. She'd be weak and susceptible to the tiniest illnesses -- a common cold, for instance, could lead to pneumonia. And first, of course, she needed to convince her doctors and family that she could handle the rigors of competition.
Jill's biggest concern, however, was whether it would be unfair for her to return if she couldn't attend all the practices. "Look," said O'Neill, "you're the only coxswain we've got who's competed at NCAAs. You're the most experienced. If Iva got hurt and she couldn't practice until a week before Pac-10s, would she compete?" Jill nodded. O'Neill paused, then said, "Well, you're the Iva of coxswains."
Her first practice back was a Saturday morning in early March at Briones Reservoir, 15 minutes from the Cal campus. The team began with a two-mile jog, from the boathouse to the reservoir entrance and back. Jill sat in the boathouse clutching a cup of tea and watched as, one mile out, her teammates began changing color. All 50 of them tore off their sweatshirts to reveal yellow T-shirts that read CAL CREW CANCER KILLERS. All doubts she had about her decision vanished in the cool morning air.
After Jill's first practice the girls in her boat went up to O'Neill. Jill, they told him, had been awesome. Not because she was courageous or because she had made it through practice. Rather, because she was now a better coxswain. And as the weeks went on, O'Neill realized the rowers were right. He likes to say that there are three types of coxswain: the motivator, always rah-rah; the drill sergeant, ever demanding peak performance; and the airline pilot, cool and collected. Her first three years, Jill was more of a motivator, but now she had become an airline pilot. Maybe it was the cancer, maybe it was maturity, maybe it was a combination of the two. No matter what happened -- a missed stroke, a slow start -- Jill did not change her tenor. It would all be O.K., she seemed to say.
Then there'd been the matter of her timing. For someone whose job was to call out the stroke rate -- some schools' coxes say, Stroke! Stroke! Stroke! but Cal used a call of Cha! Sha! -- Jill had terrible rhythm. She was always losing the flow of it, like a wallflower at a party hopelessly trying to snap along to a song. So at O'Neill's urging, she just stopped doing it. Watching the team in erg sessions, he'd noticed that the girls could maintain a rhythm without prompting.
O'Neill's other concern had been that Jill's illness might prove a distraction. That was clearly not going to be an issue. Not only did she refuse to use cancer as a crutch, but she didn't even talk about it. Before the first weekend of racing, in early April, Jill endured a round of chemo at Stanford on Friday, then called O'Neill -- not to opt out of practice that afternoon but to say she'd be 20 minutes late because her treatment went long. The same day another rower called O'Neill to say she needed to skip practice: She had a fever of 99.1 degrees.
Smitty, the trainer, kept a close watch on Jill, expecting to be called upon often. She never was. "Honestly, Jill did not require anything of us," Smitty says. "She took care of the rest of us. She let us know if treatment was going to interfere with something we were going to do. She didn't want to focus on the illness or on her. Her attitude was, 'I am a member of this team and nothing more.' She wanted to be like every other kid." In a way, Jill was finally like her teammates. By not talking about it, the pain might become less important.
By March, Jill had survived 14 rounds of chemo. The side effects included fatigue, night sweats, skin sensitivity, puffy cheeks, liquid retention, and swollen ankles and feet. Still, her attitude remained upbeat. I'm going to keep on believing, JILL IS HEALTHY! until the doctors tell me I'm absolutely right, she wrote.
The news relayed by the doctors got progressively worse, though. Scans in March showed that the masses in her left lung and her liver had grown, and a new mass had appeared in her right lung. Hoping for a miracle, Jill had applied in December to be one of about 40 people chosen to go with the Knights of Malta, a charitable group affiliated with the Catholic Church, to Lourdes, France, where the water at the Grotto of Massabielle is said to have healing powers. She was accepted and, with her mother and aunt, prepared to travel there for a week at the end of April and beginning of May. There was only one downside: She'd miss the season-ending Stanford meet.
So while Cal prepared to race its hated rival, half a world away Jill followed the team on Twitter and Facebook. When she saw a photo of the Cal uniforms for the race, she gasped. O'Neill had ordered special unitards in turquoise -- Jill's favorite color -- and navy rather than the familiar yellow and blue. Where there is usually a Cal bear, an emblem the girls like to focus on while rowing, there was now a silhouette of Jill, modeled after a photo of her taken the previous spring at nationals, holding high the team trophy. And where it usually read CAL in cursive, it now read JILL. The women's oars were also turquoise and navy. Inspired, the team swept Stanford. Jill read the news and danced around her hotel room.
Then she learned something else: Cal's top coxswain had been demoted to the second boat. The spot in the varsity eight was in play heading into the Pac-10 championships.
The good news came on May 8, the Saturday before Pac-10s. O'Neill had conducted an e-mail poll of the top eight rowers, asking them to rank their top three coxswains. Six had put Jill first, even though she'd never coxed the top boat in competition. This was all the reassurance O'Neill needed. He was, as he says, "far too competitive" to make such an important decision based on sentimentality, but he'd seen the way Jill had worked the boats and had been impressed. Before practice he pulled her behind the boathouse. "I'm leaning toward you coxing the varsity this weekend," O'Neill said. "Are you up for it?"
It was what Jill had been waiting to hear since junior high, when she'd first dreamed of coxing an elite program. She smiled and said, "Yup."
Jill knew the job would be brutally taxing, but she was used to that by now. A couple of weeks earlier, on the eve of the Washington race, she had insisted on going to practice straight from a chemo session that had left her hardly able to stand. When her father, Jim, pulled up to the boathouse, rain was pounding down. Assistant coach Sara Nevin approached Jill as she got out of the car. "Jill, we have another cox," Nevin said. "You don't have to do this. Make a smart decision."
"I am," Jill replied.
The way Jill saw it, there was nothing more important to her recovery. If she could get in that boat, then she could keep fighting cancer. And if she could beat Stanford at the Pac-10s, then she could beat cancer.
It was all about managing her body. By this point her face was puffy, her abdomen bloated and her feet so swollen that she couldn't wear shoes. (Instead she hobbled around in sandals.) But she had learned to conserve her energy. She'd be ready.
The heat didn't help. On Sunday, May 16, the day of the Pac-10s, it was 90 degrees at Lake Natoma, outside Sacramento, with only a whiff of a breeze. Waiting in the team tent, Jill drank water, trying to keep her temperature down. She'd awakened that morning from a feverish dream. Then she'd injected an anticoagulant into her leg and, as always, a dark bruise had immediately bloomed. Finally she'd gulped down 14 pills, the cocktail of cancer-fighting agents, vitamins and painkillers that she needed to function. Pain was a constant now, but Jill didn't pay it much attention. "Her whole year was leading up to that moment," Mary Costello says. "She was going to finish it."
Gingerly, Jill joined her teammates in the boat. The morning's early races had gone well for Cal. Now, with only the varsity eight race remaining, Berkeley was in position to win the Pac-10 title. All the Bears needed to do was beat Stanford. On the sideline O'Neill tried not to think about the fact that this was the first time Jill had coxed the varsity eight. Usually there are preliminary heats and semifinals, but this year the Pac-10s had been compressed into one race. Jill was ready, O'Neill told himself over and over again.
In the boat Jill knew the time had come. She pulled out a vial and passed it to sophomore Kristina Lofman, who was immediately in front of her, and told her to pass it around. Lofman stared at it and asked, "Do I drink it?"
A few seats behind her Elise Etem, the powerful sophomore whose brother had been drafted by the Anaheim Ducks, thought perhaps her cox had lost her mind and brought the tiniest bottle of refreshment in the history of sports. "Um, I think we're good on water, Jill," Etem said.
"No," replied Jill, calm as can be. "It's miracle water."
And with that, each rower took a splash of the water, which Jill had brought back from Lourdes in plastic bottles and, as if applying perfume, dabbed it behind an ear.
On the P.A. system, the race announcer said, "Attention!"
Their backs to the finish line, the eight rowers faced the small, puffy-faced girl with a blue Cal hat and a hands-free microphone. A thousand thoughts raced through their heads. In the fourth seat Etem thought that if Jill could be sitting there that day, then Etem could certainly row all-out for 2,000 meters. In the fifth seat Mary Jeghers thought how special it was that after being Jill's teammate for four years, this was the first time she had Jill as her cox. And in the eighth seat, only a foot or so from Jill, Lofman thought about what was to come.
Before the race O'Neill had pulled Lofman aside. "At a thousand meters I want you to look in Jill's face," O'Neill had said, "and be as brave as she is." Lofman had nodded her head, but she was scared. She didn't know if she could do it -- be as brave as Jill. Later she would say that she had never gone for it as much as she did in that race, that she felt nothing was going to stop her.
The flag dropped, and the Cal team shot out like a waterborne rocket. Oregon State, Washington and Washington State dropped back immediately. Only one team -- Stanford, of course -- would stick with the Bears. At 500 meters it was Cal by a nose. At 1,000 it was Cal by half a boat length. It was there that Lofman noticed something unusual: a dab of scarlet just below Jill's nose. Then the smudge grew, blood snaking toward Jill's upper lip. Jill saw the fear in Lofman's eyes and knew what had happened. With a quick, disdainful motion she wiped away the blood with the back of her hand. Lofman felt a surge of energy course through her. "It was like she wasn't going to let her body stop her from doing what she wanted to do," says Lofman. Already close to maxing out, Lofman dug even deeper.
With 300 meters to go Cal remained well out in front. But then, half a minute later, with only 100 meters to go, it happened: On her return stroke Etem caught half a crab, and moments later so did Kara Kohler, another port oar, causing the boat to rock violently. With a quick motion Jill grabbed the rope and yanked, pulling the shell back to starboard. "Finish strong" was all she said.
With that the boat righted and regained speed. Good thing too, for Stanford was now just 10 feet behind. The crews hit the finish line in a blur. There was a beat, and then a roar went up from the shoreline: The Bears had won by less than a second. By the slimmest of margins -- half a point -- the Pac-10 championship was Cal's.
If anyone questioned whether the girls had given their all, he had only to look at the boat. In their greatest moment of triumph, two of the rowers sagged over their oars, while another two were bent over the side of the boat heaving. Eventually the shell coasted into the shore, and the team piled out. Lofman, ankle deep in the water, wrapped her arms around Jill, later swearing that she could feel the joy in her coxswain bubbling into the embrace.
If there was any doubt about Jill's ability as a coxswain, it was gone. She would be Cal's varsity eight cox at nationals two weeks later.
As Cal bore down on Virginia late in the NCAA final, it seemed the whole cosmos roared for Jill Costello.
If you were told you had a month left to live, what would you do? By May the prognosis for Jill had grown alarmingly dark. She paid it no mind. She'd learned early in her treatment to look at the world through a different lens. Her advice, as she wrote: Your life is happening right now and this is the only moment you can control. This is the only minute that really matters. If you are constantly dwelling on something that happened in the past or feeling anxious about the future, you are missing out on YOUR LIFE. Do what makes you happy in this moment and your life will be full.
What's more, Jill was part of something larger than herself now. For six months she'd been working with the San Francisco--based Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, and she had agreed to become its director of public awareness after graduation. She funneled her energy into organizing a charity run in Golden Gate Park called Jog for Jill, which when it was held on a foggy Sunday in September would attract close to 5,000 people and raise more than $320,000. She spoke at Genentech, a cancer research firm, exchanged e-mails with half a dozen other cancer patients nationwide and was interviewed on NPR as a voice of nonsmoker lung-cancer sufferers. She continued her schoolwork at Cal, as fastidious as ever. When, after a therapy-related extension, she handed in her final paper in International Trade, her professor gave her an A-minus without even looking at Jill's work. Naturally Jill was upset, believing she'd turned in a really good paper, one she'd worked diligently to finish. So she contacted the professor, who took a look and awarded her a straight A. The result: Jill had a 4.0 average in her final semester at Cal.
Why stop living? She persuaded her parents to get her a dog as her graduation present. Atkinson figured he'd go along with it, that she needed this. Later he realized that she was getting the dog as much for him and her parents as for herself, so there would be something of her left if she didn't make it. Jill chose a Maltese puppy, which she of course named Jack. She received the Pac-10 women's rowing athlete of the year award and the Joseph M. Kavanagh Award, presented to the most inspirational athlete at Cal.
On May 18 Jill graduated, walking across the stage at Zellerbach Auditorium to thunderous applause while wearing her Pac-10 medal and a blonde wig. Five days later her parents held a graduation party at their house for 150 people. Because Mary had traveled with her daughter to Lourdes, it had fallen to Jim, a laconic water department supervisor, to organize the fiesta. "In 31 years of marriage that was the first time he'd had to host an event," says Mary.
Jill barely made it through the party, retiring to her room to rest four times. The next morning she was back at practice, and again on Tuesday, when her parents joined her for the final session at Briones. The next morning the team left for nationals in Sacramento while Jill stayed behind for a doctor's appointment.
That afternoon she got the worst news yet. The treatment hadn't stopped the growth of the tumors in her lungs, bones and liver. It was time to move, the doctors told her, from How do we cure this? to How do we make your last few weeks as comfortable as possible? In Natoma, O'Neill received the news in a text from Jill. After months of holding it in, of playing the role of the stoic coach, the ultimate optimist, he finally cracked. Gathering the whole squad in the boathouse, he began a speech about teamwork, then brought up Jill. "Guys," he said, "we can't control how many days she has left, but we can control the quality of the days she has left." Then O'Neill, who prided himself on never showing emotion, had to stop. He turned away so the girls wouldn't see him crying.
That night no one expected Jill at the late practice, especially because it was an unimportant one, devoted to rigging the boats. But there she was. She had gone straight from the doctor's office to meet with an assistant coach and with Obradovic, the star rower, who'd had to stick around for a class, then traveled up to Sacramento. She was as upbeat as ever. Jeghers remembers marveling that you'd never have known about Jill's diagnosis, that Jill didn't once mention being tired. Even though she was having trouble walking and keeping food down, Jill tried to show up to Saturday-afternoon practice. Only after O'Neill insisted did she relent and stay at the hotel.
Just by making it this far, she'd defied the odds. Of all others given a diagnosis of lung cancer in June 2009, more than half had died by January. And here Jill was, six months later, about to race at nationals.
There was so much wrapped up in this final race. Lying in bed that week, O'Neill had confided to his wife, Nicole, that while the rowers never talked about it, they felt that if they could win the NCAAs, then Jill could beat cancer. "It would be like Lance Armstrong all over again," he said. Saturday night, on the eve of the final race, O'Neill got up at the team dinner and said he thought it wasn't fair that everyone got to race as Team Jill except Jill herself. Then he'd pulled out a turquoise uniform for Jill.
The next morning, rowers were on hand from schools across the country -- Princeton, Virginia, Yale -- and many of them knew nothing about Jill. The trainer for Washington State, Barb Russell, knew only because she was friends with Smitty. So when the Cougars were knocked out in the semis, Russell couldn't contain herself any longer. She gathered the team around her. "Do you know why Cal is wearing those colors?" she asked. "O.K., let me tell you a story." Five minutes later all the Washington State rowers were clustered at the shoreline, cheering for Cal. They didn't stop until well after the boat had crossed the finish line.
The Bears' four finished second that day, and the second eight finished third. The field for the varsity eights, meanwhile, was extremely fast. In the first two heats, four boats had broken the course record. It would be no small feat, but if Jill's boat beat Virginia, Cal would be national champion.
In the final the Yale crew took an early lead, with Virginia and Princeton close and Cal in fourth. At 1,000 meters the Bears were a half-boat length back and looked out of the race. Knowing they needed to make a move, Jill exhorted the team to take a "power 10." Beat by beat it worked, and Cal gained on the Cavaliers. The Bears had found their swing.
Here it was, the dramatic comeback everyone was waiting for: After the fastest third leg of any boat by far, Cal was only 10 feet behind Virginia. On the shore O'Neill watched on the JumboTron and then, overtaken by the moment, began sprinting alongside the boat, yelling, "Go, Cal! Go, Jill!" In the stands Atkinson and Mary and Jim Costello were on their feet, Atkinson pumping his arms as if he might row the boat himself. The Washington State girls roared. The whole cosmos roared for Jill Costello, or so it seemed in that moment.
And then suddenly it was over. Cal ran out of water, finishing fourth, while Virginia came in second. Reality set in: The Bears had finished second at nationals. Lofman doubled over, bawling. Kohler, the six-foot freshman who looked like a Viking goddess, couldn't tell what was sweat and what was tears. None of them understood. No one had wanted it more than they had. Most schools would be ecstatic to finish second in the country; hell, the same girls had been ecstatic to finish second only a year earlier. But this was different.
The least upset girl was the one who had the most reason to be. Jill didn't break down and cry. She didn't scream out. She didn't wallow in the defeat. Instead she went to her mom and picked up Jack, then brought him back to the bleachers for the medal ceremony. That's where someone took the photo that Nevin set as her Facebook profile picture, the one that O'Neill included in the team training schedule, the one that Obradovic uses as her laptop background. It's the same shot that was in the program at Jill's funeral when she passed away less than a month later, on June 24, 2010. In the photo Jill is holding Jack aloft with one hand in front of the second-place trophy, smiling like the luckiest girl in the world.
Look at the faces around her, of the teammates who should have been dejected, who had been so disappointed only minutes earlier. You'll notice something: They're smiling too.