An article about the Cal-Stanford rowing competition that commemorated Jill Costello incorrectly reported the part of the boat in which the coxswain sits. Coxes sit in the rear of the boat.
It was the kind of morning Jill Costello would have loved. The sun shimmered off the smooth water at Redwood Shores, broken only by the Cal and Stanford racing sculls knifing through a channel at the 79th annual Big Row.
"Jill is everywhere," Cal women's rowing coach Dave O'Neill said Saturday.
And the presence of the former Golden Bears coxswain who succumbed to lung cancer two years ago at age 22 continues to be felt on the water and beyond.
Crews from the Bay Area rivals modified their uniforms to commemorate Costello with the Cal women adorned in "Team Jill" tops that featured her favorite aquamarine color. But she also is becoming an inspirational figure outside the rowing community as her memory raises awareness about how nonsmokers such as Costello can be so suddenly struck down by lung cancer.
"She was a leader even before she got cancer," said Darby Anderson, who oversees the nonprofit Jill's Legacy. "And she's still leading us now."
More than $300,000 has been raised in her name, which is no small sum for a disease that has lacked research funding because of the perception that lung cancer, the nation's second-leading cause of death, is "only" a smoker's disease. That helps explain why the survivor rate of just 15.5 percent stubbornly has not improved in four decades.
Facing these difficult odds, Costello still achieved her twin goals of graduating and competing at the collegiate national championships even as her athlete's body was tormented by tumors and weakened by chemotherapy treatments. Now, friends and family say a lasting tribute to Costello is continuing her campaign of helping find a cure.
"There's not another story like hers in the world," former teammate Erica Bellis said.
Costello, a talented athlete who attended San Francisco's St. Ignatius College Prep, turned to crew when her height topped out at 5-foot-4. Coxswains don't pull oars, so the smaller the frame the better.
Coxes sit in front of the boat, facing rowers. From there they help navigate, encourage and ensure a safe voyage. And Costello was a perfect motivator with an infectious personality that sometimes bordered on bossy.
She had all the traits to become the Bears' top coxswain in her senior year of 2009-10 but received a startling diagnosis the summer before it began. After getting tested for stomach pains, Costello, then 21, learned she had Stage IV lung cancer -- the disease's most advanced form.
The widespread image of lung cancer is that it's self-inflicted because smoking is directly responsible for about 80 percent of those who contract the disease, the American Cancer Society reports. But the other 20 percent -- like Costello -- are nonsmokers and often relatively young. Other factors linked to lung cancer are genetics or environmental causes such as asbestos and secondhand smoke.
Costello, in addition to being in supreme physical condition, had no family history of the illness. Although the diagnosis of her condition was devastating, she approached it with an athlete's determination by refusing to miss classes or practices.
She endured 20-plus rounds of chemotherapy, and her body would become so bloated by medications that she couldn't wear shoes on her swollen feet. Yet she hid her pain while remaining a constant uplifting presence at the Cal boathouse.
"She was just this tiny girl battling this huge disease without complaining and always with a smile on her face," said Bellis, who also coxed the Bears. "Somehow she just saw all this as an added challenge in her life."
Despite the "inconvenience," she graduated with honors. And at the depths of her illness, she also reached her sporting peak by winning a spot in Cal's varsity eight boat for the first time at the Pac-10 championships. The Golden Bears edged Stanford to win the title and advance to the NCAA finals.
"That wasn't sympathy," said O'Neill, the coach. "She earned it. She had this smile in her voice where she could yell and tell you that you had to work harder but say it in a positive way that made teammates say: 'OK, we can do that.' "
Costello also took on another challenge. She participated in the inaugural Jog for Jill, which drew 1,000 people to the Cal campus and raised $40,000 for research. She made post-graduation plans to become the face of lung cancer in hopes of changing perceptions about the disease.
Heather Wakelee, a Stanford Cancer Institute oncologist who treated Costello, appreciated her patient's spirit.
"It's very easy for everybody to put on pink," she said of the breast cancer fundraising campaign. "When you get to Lung Cancer Awareness month in November there is no awareness. Everybody is afraid to talk about it."
"She just shouted about it," Wakelee said.
Beat Cancer Big Time
On May 30, 2010, days after learning she had just weeks to live, Costello's voice was heard one final time in a Cal boat. She helped the Bears finish second at the NCAA meet. By late June she was gone.
"I certainly didn't know it was the end until the end actually arrived," Bellis said. "We always thought: 'She'll be fine because this is Jill, and she is amazing.' "
Before she died, Costello penned a slogan in her journal that has become a rallying cry: Beat Cancer Big Time.
"If she couldn't beat it for herself, then she wanted to beat it for other people who would be diagnosed," said Anderson, Costello's sorority sister.
Jill's Legacy, which is affiliated with the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, now stages Jog for Jill run-walk events on college campuses around the country to raise money and awareness.
At the Big Row on Saturday, athletes from both schools remembered the small young woman with unbridled determination the best way they knew how -- by climbing into their boats to pull as hard as they could.
As the Cal boats would pass beneath a bridge along the course, on this day they didn't yell out the traditional "Here comes California!" Instead they shouted: "Here comes Team Jill!"
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him at Twitter.com/elliottalmond.