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.
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.