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Athletics luncheon honors courage, inspiration and academics

Coxswain Jill Costello brought the crowd at Cal Athletics' annual Academic Honors Luncheon to its feet with the story of her battle with cancer. Costello was one of dozens of students honored as both scholars and athletes at Thursday's event.

Senior Jill Costello is about to graduate from Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Later this month, she’ll be competing with her team, women’s crew, in the Pac 10 championship regatta.

Women's crew coxwain Jill Costello

Women's crew coxswain Jill Costello received the Joseph M. Kavanagh Award as the most inspirational athlete. (Kelley Cox photos)

“You never know what obstacles you’ll face,” she told her fellow student-athletes at Cal Athletics’ annual Academic Honors Luncheon on Thursday, “but I do know the Golden Bear can handle any challenge.”

And Monday, she goes back into chemotherapy for stage-4 lung cancer, diagnosed a year ago — just after Costello and her teammates came back from winning second place in the NCAA championships.

Costello spoke after accepting the Joseph McDonnell Kavanagh Award for the most inspirational athlete, and her words brought the hundreds of students, coaches, faculty and administrators gathered in Pauley Ballroom to their feet in applause.

Her courageous story exemplified the spirit in the room, where the often overlooked academic and intellectual achievements of Berkeley’s athletes were honored.

“This is a great opportunity for us to trumpet the academic achievements of our talented student-athletes,” Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour told the crowd. “I like to think that we do that often … but clearly we can never do it enough because the achievements of our student-athletes are at the core of what we do.”

All Cal student-athletes with a GPA of 3.25 or better were invited to the lunch — 214 of the 850-plus total.

Among those honored was basketball player Theo Robertson, who is Cal’s best career three-point shooter at 44 percent — and is graduating with a degree in social welfare and a 4.0 GPA for the last three semesters. He won the Jake Gimbel award for the successful integration of academic and athletic pursuits.

Lauren Greif, also a basketball player and graduating senior, won the women’s counterpart, the Anna Espenschade award. (A full list of the winners and more photos of the event are posted on the Cal Athletics website.)

Robertson is one of five seniors on the men’s basketball team who are graduating this year, a number Athletic Study Center Director Derek Van Rheenen called unusual in an era when talented college players are snapped up by the NBA.

“This is a great example that we’re on the right track,” Van Rheenen, awards-ceremony emcee, said in comments after the lunch. “I hope that gets noticed.”

Warren Hellman defended university athletics

Warren Hellman, who played water polo for Cal, delivered a rousing defense of university athletics.

The fact that a football player — Mark Boskovich — won a Neufeld Scholar-Athlete Award for best GPA (along with pole vaulter Theresa Raub) also was significant, Van Rheenen said.

“I think people say, ‘Well fine, the Olympic athletes are achieving, but what about those football and basketball players?’ ” he said.

He added, in a theme that echoed throughout the luncheon, “Particularly at this time, when things are volatile and there’s a lot of questioning of the value of athletics and how it supports the mission of the university, I think these are the kinds of events and experiences that need to be heard.”

Keynote speaker Warren Hellman, a onetime Golden Bears water polo player who went on to become a successful businessman, told the students that “athletics is really the best possible base you could have for your life.” It teaches persistence, endurance and the idea that you start what you finish, he said.

“I’m extremely proud of being from Cal. I know what athletics contributes to Cal,” said Hellman.

Alluding to criticism of Cal Athletics’ budget over the last year, as the campus has struggled with huge state funding cuts, he recounted his decision, along with three other past water polo players and swimmers, to endow Berkeley’s aquatics program six years ago.

“Somebody made a remark this year that ‘I don’t think we should subsidize athletes,'” Hellman said. In the six years since the aquatics endowment, the four have donated to non-athletic programs some four times what they gave to Cal Aquatics, he said. His own contribution has been fellowships for promising young faculty.

“If it wasn’t for athletics, I don’t know if my level of enthusiasm for Cal would continue to be as great,” he said, adding that he knows others who feel the same way. “In my heart athletics is one key to my love of this university.”

Lauren Greif and Theo Robertson won awards for the student athletes with the highest GPAs.

Lauren Greif and Theo Robertson, both graduating basketball players, won the Anna Espenschade and Jake Gimbel awards for the student athletes with the highest GPAs.

Costello, a varsity coxswain, took the stage after women’s crew head coach Dave O’Neill told the story of her courage in facing her illness, and how she had inspired her entire team.

Just back from the 2009 NCAAs, Costello asked a trainer to check a nagging injury. It was a Friday, O’Neill recounted. The trainer sent her to the Tang Center, which sent her to Alta Bates Hospital, which sent her to California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

By Saturday, the diagnosis was made. On Monday, the news got to team, which reeled with shock and sorrow. But within an hour, the rowers were talking about how to rally around their teammate in the fight of her life.

It didn’t take long, though, before “it turned out that the team member who had cancer was inspiring and motivating her team” with her persistence and courage in dealing with her disease, O’Neill said.

A year later, on May 1, the crew team went back to face their nemesis from the 2009 NCAAs. Costello missed the meet because she’d gone on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, seeking a miracle.

Instead of competing as the Golden Bears, the women rowed as “Team Jill,” complete with uniforms announcing their name. Four crews raced against the defending champions, and the goal for each, O’Neill said, “was be as tough and courageous as the name on your back.”

With the captain repeating “make Jill proud,” Team Jill went four for four.

Costello, showing slides of her hospital room and from last year’s NCAAs, told the audience that her diagnosis came out of the blue — she’s a nonsmoker and a young healthy athlete.

Being a student and an athlete at Cal has been a series of challenges for everyone in the room, she says. “When you came to Cal,” she told her fellow student-athletes, “you chose to challenge yourselves.” Her cancer, she said, is her biggest challenge so far — and one thing that’s helped has been “all the mental and physical training I’d been through.”

After Monday’s chemo, Costello said, she’ll get busy preparing for the Pac 10 regatta, coming up on May 15. And, she added, “Go Bears!”