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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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Just by making it this far, she'd defied the odds. Of all others given a diagnosis of lung cancer in June 2009, more than half had died by January. And here Jill was, six months later, about to race at nationals.

There was so much wrapped up in this final race. Lying in bed that week, O'Neill had confided to his wife, Nicole, that while the rowers never talked about it, they felt that if they could win the NCAAs, then Jill could beat cancer. "It would be like Lance Armstrong all over again," he said. Saturday night, on the eve of the final race, O'Neill got up at the team dinner and said he thought it wasn't fair that everyone got to race as Team Jill except Jill herself. Then he'd pulled out a turquoise uniform for Jill.

The next morning, rowers were on hand from schools across the country—Princeton, Virginia, Yale—and many of them knew nothing about Jill. The trainer for Washington State, Barb Russell, knew only because she was friends with Smitty. So when the Cougars were knocked out in the semis, Russell couldn't contain herself any longer. She gathered the team around her. "Do you know why Cal is wearing those colors?" she asked. "O.K., let me tell you a story." Five minutes later all the Washington State rowers were clustered at the shoreline, cheering for Cal. They didn't stop until well after the boat had crossed the finish line.

The Bears' four finished second that day, and the second eight finished third. The field for the varsity eights, meanwhile, was extremely fast. In the first two heats, four boats had broken the course record. It would be no small feat, but if Jill's boat beat Virginia, Cal would be national champion.

In the final the Yale crew took an early lead, with Virginia and Princeton close and Cal in fourth. At 1,000 meters the Bears were a half-boat length back and looked out of the race. Knowing they needed to make a move, Jill exhorted the team to take a "power 10." Beat by beat it worked, and Cal gained on the Cavaliers. The Bears had found their swing.

Here it was, the dramatic comeback everyone was waiting for: After the fastest third leg of any boat by far, Cal was only 10 feet behind Virginia. On the shore O'Neill watched on the JumboTron and then, overtaken by the moment, began sprinting alongside the boat, yelling, "Go, Cal! Go, Jill!" In the stands Atkinson and Mary and Jim Costello were on their feet, Atkinson pumping his arms as if he might row the boat himself. The Washington State girls roared. The whole cosmos roared for Jill Costello, or so it seemed in that moment.

And then suddenly it was over. Cal ran out of water, finishing fourth, while Virginia came in second. Reality set in: The Bears had finished second at nationals. Lofman doubled over, bawling. Kohler, the 6-foot freshman who looked like a Viking goddess, couldn't tell what was sweat and what was tears. None of them understood. No one had wanted it more than they had. Most schools would be ecstatic to finish second in the country; hell, the same girls had been ecstatic to finish second only a year earlier. But this was different.

The least upset girl was the one who had the most reason to be. Jill didn't break down and cry. She didn't scream out. She didn't wallow in the defeat. Instead she went to her mom and picked up Jack, then brought him back to the bleachers for the medal ceremony. That's where someone took the photo that Nevin set as her Facebook profile picture, the one that O'Neill included in the team training schedule, the one that Obradovic uses as her laptop background. It's the same shot that was in the program at Jill's funeral when she passed away less than a month later, on June 24, 2010. In the photo Jill is holding Jack aloft with one hand in front of the second-place trophy, smiling like the luckiest girl in the world.

Look at the faces around her, of the teammates who should have been dejected, who had been so disappointed only minutes earlier. You'll notice something: They're smiling too.

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