— Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation
By Kristen Leigh Porter
Even after her death, Jill Costello is making a difference – big time.
Cal senior coxswain Jill Costello holds up her dog as she celebrates a second place finish with her teammates at the 2010 NCAA Division I Women’s Rowing Championships. Photo courtesy of BJALCF.
She died June 24, 2010, at age 22, a month after helping California to a second-place finish at the NCAA Division I Women’s Rowing Championships. Her experience battling lung cancer while earning a seat as the coxswain for the varsity eight and graduating from Berkeley in her final days was chronicled in the Nov. 29, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated in an article titled The Courage of Jill Costello.
Her memory will be a part of the 2011 national regatta taking place Friday through Sunday at Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif. The NCAA is donating a dollar for every ticket sold to Jill’s Legacy, a group that will be on site for three days passing out flyers and bracelets to raise awareness. Jill’s Legacy is a newly created advisory board for the California-based Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation that Jill became involved with following her diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer on June 6, 2009.
Instead of wearing black armbands in mourning, this year’s California women’s rowing team celebrates Jill with an embroidered ribbon on its uniforms. The ribbon is teal – Jill’s favorite color – and located on the back of the unisuits underneath the Cal bear. While the rowers race, they focus on that spot between the shoulder blades.
For senior coxswain Erica Bellis and her teammates, it’s like they are carrying a piece of Jill to the finish line with them. Even as she underwent chemotherapy sessions and radiation treatments, Jill was funny and kind, confident and compassionate. She exuded positivity, a quality magnified by her situation.
The Cal women's rowing team celebrates the 2010 Pac-10 championship. Photo courtesy of BJALCF.
“One of my favorite quotes of Jill’s was ‘Life is all about how we handle the challenges we’re given,’ ” Bellis, 21, said. “I kind of look to that every day, that if something’s not going my way in a race or in a practice, it’s all a challenge and it’s all about how you handle that challenge. That’s what I try to bring to the boat in terms of Jill.”
Bears coach Dave O’Neill said Cal hasn’t dedicated its season to Jill, because last year was all about Jill, but there is a sense of unfinished business. Cal – winner of the team title in 2005 and 2006 – is ranked second in the latest CRCA/USRowing Coaches poll.
A number of talented freshmen will be among the two boats of eight rowers and one boat of four rowers who will be racing for Cal at the NCAA championships. They’ve never met Jill and weren’t part of last year’s experience. But the freshmen wear bracelets and T-shirts in her honor.
“Even though Jill’s gone, she is not forgotten,” O’Neill said. “She’s actually touching more and more people’s lives on our team and throughout the country than she ever did.”
In late March at the Pac-10 Women’s Challenge, Cal unveiled its new varsity eight boat, Beat Lung Cancer. Instead of the customary champagne poured along the stern, “miracle water” from the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France was used in the christening from when Jill had been chosen to make a pilgrimage to partake of its reputed healing powers. There’s a profile of Jill on the boat, so team members feel she is with them every race, every practice.
Cal's Jill Costello smiles. Photo courtesy of Richard Ersted, GoldenBearSports.com.
O’Neill said that seeing Jill’s mom and dad (Mary and James Costello) and big brothers (James and Kevin) at home races this season made his team members realize there’s a greater purpose in what they’re doing.
O’Neill has received support from the rowing community, other Cal athletics teams, the Pac-10 and NCAA. The dual with Stanford, Cal’s fiercest rival, has been renamed from “The Jill Row” from “The Big Row.” During the competition, Cal team members wear teal and navy tank tops with Jill’s profile on the back instead of the Cal bear.
Jill’s story has inspired students and staff from Cal and Stanford to Harvard and Yale to raise money and awareness for lung cancer. Jog for Jill (J4J) initiatives have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars toward finding a cure. More runs are planned for later this year.
Jill’s Legacy and BJALCF also made her presence felt at the Pac-10 championships earlier this month through the “Jill Again at the Pac-10 – Our Forever Champion” fund-raising and awareness campaign. Jill was the 2010 Pac-10 Athlete of the Year and coxed the varsity eight boat for the first time at the event last year.
“I feel like athletes have so much power on campus and I think there’s a huge connection with the rowing teams, one rower to another, to be able to support Jill and support this cause,” said former Cal water polo student-athlete Darby Anderson, a friend of Jill’s who has dedicated her life to the cause.
Serving as Jill’s Legacy board president is Bryce Atkinson, Jill’s boyfriend and a former member of the Cal men’s crew team. Atkinson, 23, is now out of school and living in San Francisco.
“It’s nice to carry on her legacy for her because she wanted to fight this battle so much and make a big difference,” he said. “So it is therapeutic to know that I’m surrounded by people who loved her and wanted to change the stigma of lung cancer and hopefully find a cure for this disease.”
Cal senior Erica Bellis.
A handful of people who met for the first time at the BJALCF office in Dec.2010 without a name or a purpose now are part of a group of about 20 young professionals under the age of 25 made up of Jill’s friends, family and others affected by the disease. They named the group Jill’s Legacy, but it’s about more than just Jill, it’s about all lung cancer patients.
Anderson, a Jill’s Legacy board member, met Jill her junior year after joining the same sorority and the two became fast friends. She started working as a full-time employee for BJALCF in January, and splits her time between Jill’s Legacy and Jog for Jill initiatives.
“We’re out to change the face of lung cancer and to let people know this isn’t a disease that your 75-year old grandpa who smokes a pack a day gets anymore,” Anderson, 23, said. “This is a disease that young people are getting. The Jill’s Legacy money we get is going directly to young researchers studying thoracic oncology. We don’t have time to wait 10 years for a new chemotherapy treatment. We need answers now, people are dying fast and there’s no time to sit around and wait.”
Cal coach Dave O'Neill.
Jill’s Legacy has already received a $200,000 grant, and will hand-select researchers to fund with the money. It received another grant from the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer for several Jill’s Legacy members to attend the 14th World Conference on Lung Cancer in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on July 3-7.
With a 15.5 percent survival rate, lung cancer can quickly changes the lives of old and young alike.
Just ask Taylor Bell, a Jill’s Legacy board member and former East Carolina soccer student-athlete who became a fourth-generation lung cancer patient (grandmother, great grandfather and great, great uncle) when she was diagnosed two weeks after her 21st birthday. Although based in North Carolina, Bell communicated with Jill often via phone and email, and the two met in person at a BJALCF gala and shot a lung cancer awareness video together.
“Even though we lost Jill, the lessons that she left for us are so invaluable,” said Bell, 24, a survivor whose work as a community outreach coordinator for Carolina Well cancer survivorship program at Leo W. Jenkins Cancer Center helps cancer patients and their families. “Just look what we’ve been able to do just from the formation of Jill’s Legacy and how much awareness we’ve been able to bring, it’s incredible.”
Taylor Bell (left), Bonnie J. Addario and Jill Costello enjoy a moment at a BJALCF gala.
Jill’s former teammates have also taken up the fight in her name.
“I want people to know her story and know about her and for this disease never to take another Jill,” Bellis said.
Jill wanted to get the word out “big time” – one of her favorite phrases – about lung cancer. Her life’s work was put into words of a letter Jill’s mother, Mary, shared after he daughter’s passing.
On her last day, Jill wrote in her journal, “Did I make the world a better place?” and she answered, “Yes, I did.”
She was right.