Cal’s Costello Made Each Day Her Best
By Kristen Leigh Porter
Originally published 10/26/2011 on NCAA.org.
Jill Costello’s personal journal outlined six rules to live by: Love, Live, Be Grateful, Visualize, Laugh, Believe.
"Inspire" could have been added to the list. It describes Costello’s effect on others after her diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer following a promising junior season for the University of California, Berkeley, rowing team. Costello earned a seat as the coxswain for the varsity eight, walked across the stage to receive her college diploma and helped raise money and awareness for the deadliest of cancers.
She died June 24, 2010, at age 22, less than a month after the Golden Bears finished second at the NCAA Division I Women’s Rowing Championship.
Costello, one of two winners of the NCAA Inspiration Award, will be recognized in January during the Honors Celebration at the 2012 NCAA Convention in Indianapolis. World War II veteran and former Southern California runner Louis Zamperini is the other honoree.
“Jill was a great inspiration to me and many people because she taught us a simple lesson: you have your best life by making each day your best day, by living it fully and completely and finding the joy in each 24 hours,” her mother Mary Costello said.
The Inspiration award is presented to a current coach or administrator or to a current or former varsity student-athlete who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome the event and now serves as a role model to give hope and inspiration to others. Herb Benenson, assistant athletic director for athletic communications at Cal, nominated Jill, the 2010 Pac-10 Athlete of the Year, for the award.
The life of the 5-4, 110-pound dynamo was the subject of a number of regional and national attention. ESPN aired an in-depth feature on Jill’s life this past summer and Sports Illustrated published a piece on her last fall. Her life also was highlighted in NCAA Champion magazine.
“Though forced to deal head on with one of the most difficult challenges anyone could ever have to face, Jill found a way to inspire thousands of people across the world with her courage, grace and dignity,” Benenson said. “Not only did her approach to her diagnosis help motivate her teammates, but her story touched – and continues to touch – members of the entire rowing community and beyond.”
Jill’s words to live by are forever etched in the memory of her boyfriend Bryce Atkinson, a former member of the Cal men’s crew team. That final year, they put the cancer aside and lived life like two college kids in love.
“We didn’t worry about cancer and chemo…That inspired me, now that she’s gone, on how I need to live my life,” Atkinson, 23, said.
That also means carrying on Jill’s mission to beat lung cancer – big time.
Atkinson serves as director of marketing for the Jill’s Legacy Advisory Board, affiliated with the California-based Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation that Jill became involved with following her diagnosis.
When Jill’s Legacy was officially launched in March 2011, BJALCF namesake Bonnie Addario said she was “inspired and extremely hopeful about the message that these incredible young people can send to the world about lung cancer.” This year alone, $293,000 has been raised through grants and Jog for Jill events, which will fund hand-picked young lung cancer researchers and lung cancer awareness campaigns.
The first out-of-state Jog for Jill event was held September 25 on the Cornell University campus where more than 600 participants raised more than $45,000. Another Jog for Jill is scheduled for Nov. 13 on the Tulsa campus.
Sorority sister and close friend Darby Anderson, a former Cal water polo student-athlete who became a full-time employee of BJALCF in January, said Jill was passionate about changing the stigma of lung cancer and finding a cure for the disease.
Lung cancer is still the number one cancer killer with a 15.5 percent survival rate, Anderson said. People still associate it with smoking, despite the fact that now up to 80 percent of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients never smoked or stopped smoking decades before their diagnosis.
“College students especially can really relate to her story because she was so young and very much a ‘normal’ college girl before she was diagnosed,” the 23-year-old Anderson said, noting support from the rowing teams at Penn, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Loyola Marymount. “This is why we have seen so much success at the college level with raising money and awareness for lung cancer.”
The Cal women’s crew team, which took third at the 2011 NCAA championships, celebrated Jill this past season rather than mourning her. The dual with rival Stanford has been renamed “The Jill Row” and the team wears teal and navy tank tops with Jill’s profile on the back instead of the Cal bear for the competition. At the Pac-10 Women’s Challenge in March, Beat Lung Cancer was unveiled as the new varsity eight boat.
“Jill would be honored to receive this award, and I know her family is touched by the recognition,” coach Dave O’Neill said of the NCAA Inspiration Award. “Her strength and resolve was limitless, especially during the most difficult moments. Whether it was racing a tough Stanford crew or battling lung cancer, Jill always gave everything she had.”
Jill will receive the Service Award from the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame next month and introduced with the Hall of Fame class at the home football game vs. Oregon State. Jill's Legacy also will be holding a fundraiser that weekend.
For more information, visit JillsLegacy.org.