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The Courage of Jill Costello
Chris Ballard
November 29, 2010
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
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November 29, 2010

The Courage Of Jill Costello

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

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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.

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°.

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.

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