In this SI 60 Q&A, Chris Ballard explains what he learned about rowing, courage and himself while writing "The Courage Of Jill Costello."
In the summer of 2010, Sports Illustrated reporter Elizabeth McGarr received a submission for Faces In The Crowd from a man named Jim Costello. It read:
“Jill Costello was the varsity coxswain in the Cal boat that won the Pac-10 championship. She was named Pac-10 Rower of the Year for 2010. Jill coxed the varsity boat in the 2010 national races where the team came in second place. She did all this while having stage four lung cancer. She had 20 chemo treatments and 14 radiation treatments. Jill had her final race on May 30, 2010 and passed away on June 24, 2010 from lung cancer.”
Instead of choosing it for Faces, McGarr (now McGarr-McCue) smartly forwarded it to SI senior writer Chris Ballard, just as she had done many times before. Ballard, who happened to live in Berkeley, said via email, “She was great at picking up on potential features when sifting through emails to SI and passed more than one great idea my way. An invaluable resource to writers like myself.”
Ballard spent most of the summer pursuing the story, which he filed in September. It didn’t run until the Nov. 29, 2010 issue, but when it did millions of readers had the same reaction that SI’s editors did upon first reading it: they were inspired, moved to tears and sometimes both.
I spoke to Ballard recently about the piece that won a Luce Award from Time Inc., was honored by the Uniting Against Lung Cancer organization and was anthologized by the Best American Sportswriting 2010. It also generated more reader feedback than any other story Ballard has written in more than a dozen years at Sports Illustrated.
SI: What was your initial impression of this as a potential story?
BALLARD: Originally I figured this is a sad story and it’s not a national story, so it’s going to be a little bit of a push to get it into the magazine. I wish we did these stories more, but we don’t do a lot of features on female collegiate athletes, we don’t do a lot about rowing and in the end she dies, so it had three strikes against it.
The story would only work if the protagonist is very likable. She was. I drove over to talk to her coach for about three or four hours, and once I heard him talk about her, I thought this was worth pursuing.
SI: Did you know anything about rowing before doing this story?
BALLARD: I didn’t know anything about it. I read a great book by David Halberstam, The Amateurs, for this, and I was trying to read about it on the website, and I went to Cal and watched practice to try and get a sense for how the sport works.
I didn’t understand why people rowed. I just never got rowing. It was just self-torture without a lot of the strategy and competition that I loved about sports. But then I learned about it and I got it: you’re trying to see how far you can push yourself, like any endurance sport, but you’re also trying to bond with your teammates. It’s almost like going through military training or initiation -- you’re bonded through crisis.
SI: Was it still hard to convince the editors at SI to put it in the magazine?
BALLARD: They were working on a “Courage” package and thought this might work into that. I had an advantage in that it wasn’t going to cost us a lot of money to travel. I spoke with [assistant managing editor] Chris Hunt and he was in favor of going forward. I just started working on it and compiling a thread over a couple months.
The big hurdle for me was her parents, because I had two young daughters and the idea of reliving your daughter’s passing like that I knew would be heartbreaking. I knew they wanted it told but I didn’t know if they’d want it told in the way it needed to be. But they were amazing once I spent time with them.
But it wasn’t until I wrote it that I had a sense it would get in the magazine. I was unsure if I had told this story well enough. [Assistant managing editor] Neil Cohen called me on a Friday and said he was crying in his office having just finished reading it. That’s the only time I ever got that reaction from an editor.
SI: What was the biggest challenge with this story?
BALLARD: The storytelling challenge was how to end it in a way that wasn’t just depressing. You wanted to tell the story so that the reader doesn’t know if she’s going to survive or not, to create some dramatic tension. The reporting challenge was that you needed to get into her head a little bit.
I was fortunate in that she had kept an online diary. She was a remarkable woman. What she had done in the last six months, she was not only back out there with the team but she was going to class and she was stumping for lung cancer awareness and kept this diary online. I got her voice into the story, which was crucial. And this being the video age there were a lot of videos of her: team videos, Twitter accounts and things like that. When she was sick her friends had made this group video to an Andrew W.K. song to try and cheer her up. I was able to see her moving and speaking and talking.
Talking to these people around her I found a few who had really detailed memories, including her best friend. She and Jill had kept this Facebook page really just for the two of them and they were going to update it until they were 70. It was heartbreaking because very few people get to have a friend like that. She knew Jill in an intimate way that I was able to bring to life. And her boyfriend, too, after her death basically dedicated his time and his career to keep her memory alive.
Sometimes people don’t want to talk about these things or they have a lot of emotion but they don’t have particular details. It’s hard, you’re almost badgering them for details.
SI: How did you decide to structure the story in the way that you did?
BALLARD: Parts of it were easy because you had a season to wrap it around. The rowing had this dramatic finish. Telling the human side was very difficult, trying to maintain the question of whether she would survive and then having the reader not be disappointed entirely when she didn’t. It gave me a sense of the inspiration she provided to friends and family and teammates.
SI: Was it difficult getting them to open up to you about Jill?
BALLARD: People weren’t wary, but her teammates for instance, they’re college athletes and that’s an age where you live very much in the moment, so trying to get them to reflect was more difficult, obviously. Finding the doctors who treated her was powerful to me, because they were often so clinical about patients because they have to be when dealing with death all the time.
The toughest thing for me, to be honest, was that through all of this I’m coming home at night to my daughters, who were probably 2 and 4 or 3 and 5 at the time and just trying to envision this. I probably couldn’t have done this story as well before I had kids. I wouldn’t have been interested in it, or wouldn’t have had the level of empathy that I would have needed.
When I got the story idea my interest came partly from that. Secondly, when I sat down with her parents I said, “I’ve got two young daughters myself.” That was huge for being able to relate to them. And having daughters gave me keen interest into learning how girls grow up to become athletes. That allowed me to relate to her parents in a way, because I grew up with a brother and playing sports and writing about sports.
SI: So you had to ask all these detailed questions, which obviously wasn’t easy, to get information because not a lot was known about her. But you also had the story to yourself. So was it an advantage or a disadvantage that she was mostly unknown?
BALLARD: It’s weird to say this, but from a purely structural standpoint it was an advantage to me that very few people knew about her. Had she been a major figure a certain percentage of the readers would have heard about her, but a very small number knew who she was or what happened.
You have to find a different way to create tension. Then it was a matter of, if you know she’s going to die why are people going to read the rest of this story? It could have worked at column length, maybe even a couple pages, to give that information at the beginning, but if you’re going to go through talking about all the harrowing parts of cancer you need something to keep the reader going, almost tricking them into continuing to read. Then hopefully they’re glad they did it and give a hug to someone they love. That was the goal.
SI: What was the editing like on the piece?
BALLARD: Chris Hunt has this amazing ability to encourage writers and then to edit where he’s trying to bring out the humanity in stories. He was really good with this and saying, “Don’t worry about line counts or whether it’s going to run in the magazine. Just go with the instinct and go with the emotion.”
It might have been Chris or [assistant managing editor] Hank Hersch, but I do remember having a longer section, maybe a couple grafs after the end originally. But one of them said that her dying has got to be the very last thing, it can’t even have a mini coda at the end. It made sense, to keep from dwelling on the reality of her death but instead focusing on part of her life.
SI: How did readers respond to the story, given all the challenges you mentioned?
BALLARD: The cover that week was Michael Vick, so there were a lot of letters saying that Michael Vick is everything wrong with sports, Jill Costello is everything right about sports, why didn’t you put her on the cover, etc.
I got the letters packet, and this was back when people wrote letters to SI; even in the last four years that’s changed dramatically. Whoever was doing the letters packet at the time sent it to me, and these were handwritten and typed, and a lot of emails too. I forwarded that packet to her parents to give them a sense of the reaction. Often a story will have a one week impact but it got more letters than any other story two weeks out.
I was blown away. ESPN called and they wanted to do a video piece on it, people from Lifetime and various film people called. The foundation she’d been working with was able to use this to further all the efforts she started. It was really cool to see it snowball a little bit and it encouraged her parents to be OK being a little more public with it, because they felt this was furthering their daughter’s wishes.
SI: What did her parents think of the story?
BALLARD: They said it was hard to read but they loved it. We’ve kept in touch, and her mom wrote me a letter two years later saying, "Thank you for doing this and keeping our daughter alive." You don’t get that often as a sportswriter. That was pretty cool.