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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  1. Next spring the NCAA women's crew season will begin again. On lakes and rivers across the country, fleets of skinny boats will skitter over the water like giant insects, their wooden legs moving in unison. Happen upon a race, and your eyes will be drawn to the powerful women in the bow of each boat, the ones with backs like oak doors who tear great gashes in the water, pushing and pulling and exhaling clouds of carbon dioxide until their chests are aflame and their temples thump. For a moment, though, it's worth shifting your gaze to the stern, to the wispy figure of the coxswain. She'll be the only woman facing forward, the only one without an oar. Indeed, she'll barely even move, instead just sitting there…talking. If you are unfamiliar with the sport, you might wonder about this small woman's purpose, wonder if she can even be considered an athlete. After all, how can you be an athlete when all you do is talk? What difference can a woman like that make, anyway?

    You'd be amazed.

    It started as a dull ache in Jill Costello's abdomen, the kind you get after a night of suspect Chinese food. Only it didn't go away. It was June 2009, and the Cal crew had just returned from the NCAA championships in Cherry Hill, N.J. The Bears had finished second, behind Stanford, continuing a remarkable run of six top four finishes in seven years.

    Jill came back to Berkeley elated. She had coxed the third boat at nationals, which meant she had a good shot at being in the top varsity boat as a ...