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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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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° 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."

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