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 3½ 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.