With that the boat righted and regained speed. Good thing too, for Stanford was now just 10 feet behind. The crews hit the finish line in a blur. There was a beat, and then a roar went up from the shoreline: The Bears had won by less than a second. By the slimmest of margins—half a point—the Pac-10 championship was Cal's.
If anyone questioned whether the girls had given their all, he had only to look at the boat. In their greatest moment of triumph, two of the rowers sagged over their oars, while another two were bent over the side of the boat heaving. Eventually the shell coasted into the shore, and the team piled out. Lofman, ankle deep in the water, wrapped her arms around Jill, later swearing that she could feel the joy in her coxswain bubbling into the embrace.
If there was any doubt about Jill's ability as a coxswain, it was gone. She would be Cal's varsity eight cox at nationals two weeks later.
If you were told you had a month left to live, what would you do? By May the prognosis for Jill had grown alarmingly dark. She paid it no mind. She'd learned early in her treatment to look at the world through a different lens. Her advice, as she wrote: Your life is happening right now and this is the only moment you can control. This is the only minute that really matters. If you are constantly dwelling on something that happened in the past or feeling anxious about the future, you are missing out on YOUR LIFE. Do what makes you happy in this moment and your life will be full.
What's more, Jill was part of something larger than herself now. For six months she'd been working with the San Francisco--based Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, and she had agreed to become its director of public awareness after graduation. She funneled her energy into organizing a charity run in Golden Gate Park called Jog for Jill, which when it was held on a foggy Sunday in September would attract close to 5,000 people and raise more than $320,000. She spoke at Genentech, a cancer research firm, exchanged e-mails with half a dozen other cancer patients nationwide and was interviewed on NPR as a voice of nonsmoker lung-cancer sufferers. She continued her schoolwork at Cal, as fastidious as ever. When, after a therapy-related extension, she handed in her final paper in International Trade, her professor gave her an A-minus without even looking at Jill's work. Naturally Jill was upset, believing she'd turned in a really good paper, one she'd worked diligently to finish. So she contacted the professor, who took a look and awarded her a straight A. The result: Jill had a 4.0 average in her final semester at Cal.
Why stop living? She persuaded her parents to get her a dog as her graduation present. Atkinson figured he'd go along with it, that she needed this. Later he realized that she was getting the dog as much for him and her parents as for herself, so there would be something of her left if she didn't make it. Jill chose a Maltese puppy, which she of course named Jack. She received the Pac-10 women's rowing athlete of the year award and the Joseph M. Kavanagh Award, presented to the most inspirational athlete at Cal.
On May 18 Jill graduated, walking across the stage at Zellerbach Auditorium to thunderous applause while wearing her Pac-10 medal and a blonde wig. Five days later her parents held a graduation party at their house for 150 people. Because Mary had traveled with her daughter to Lourdes, it had fallen to Jim, a laconic water department supervisor, to organize the fiesta. "In 31 years of marriage that was the first time he'd had to host an event," says Mary.
Jill barely made it through the party, retiring to her room to rest four times. The next morning she was back at practice, and again on Tuesday, when her parents joined her for the final session at Briones. The next morning the team left for nationals in Sacramento while Jill stayed behind for a doctor's appointment.
That afternoon she got the worst news yet. The treatment hadn't stopped the growth of the tumors in her lungs, bones and liver. It was time to move, the doctors told her, from How do we cure this? to How do we make your last few weeks as comfortable as possible? In Natoma, O'Neill received the news in a text from Jill. After months of holding it in, of playing the role of the stoic coach, the ultimate optimist, he finally cracked. Gathering the whole squad in the boathouse, he began a speech about teamwork, then brought up Jill. "Guys," he said, "we can't control how many days she has left, but we can control the quality of the days she has left." Then O'Neill, who prided himself on never showing emotion, had to stop. He turned away so the girls wouldn't see him crying.
That night no one expected Jill at the late practice, especially because it was an unimportant one, devoted to rigging the boats. But there she was. She had gone straight from the doctor's office to meet with an assistant coach and with Obradovic, the star rower, who'd had to stick around for a class, then traveled up to Sacramento. She was as upbeat as ever. Jeghers remembers marveling that you'd never have known about Jill's diagnosis, that Jill didn't once mention being tired. Even though she was having trouble walking and keeping food down, Jill tried to show up to Saturday-afternoon practice. Only after O'Neill insisted did she relent and stay at the hotel.