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Former Cal rower Jill Costello receives NCAA’s Inspiration Award

By Gretchen Kell

UC Berkeley alumna Jill Costello, the beloved and inspirational coxswain for the Cal women’s varsity crew team who died of lung cancer in June 2010 at the age of 22, is one of two winners of the 2011 Inspiration Award from the National College Athletic Association, the NCAA announced today (Wednesday, Oct. 26).

The NCAA gives the award 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.” The other 2011 awardee is Louis Zamperini, a World War II veteran and former Southern California runner.

This is the first time that this award has been given posthumously, according to the NCAA, and the first time a UC Berkeley student-athlete has received it.

“As a team, we always talked about having a good attitude, and it’s easy when it’s a bright and sunny day and everything’s going your way,” said Dave O’Neill, head coach of Cal’s women’s crew team. “But to see how courageous Jill was during the most trying moments was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen…. She was so focused and courageous and committed to making the most of every day.”

O’Neill said Costello had two big goals when in 2009 she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, the most advanced form of the disease — to graduate from UC Berkeley and to see the women’s varsity crew team win the NCAA Division 1 Women’s Rowing Championships. The 5’4″, 110-pound Costello was the team’s coxswain, who sat in the stern and as a senior steered Cal’s top “varsity eight” boat while also coaching and motivating the rowers. In addition to her dedication to sports and academics, she also was in a sorority and worked as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

O’Neill said few people could guess how much pain or bad news Costello was enduring — she had more than 20 rounds of chemotherapy and 14 radiation treatments during her year-long battle with cancer — because she was upbeat, took care of herself and loved her sport and her team. Even in the blog she kept, he said, “you had to read between the lines to see how bad things were.”

Costello graduated from UC Berkeley on May 18,  2010, wearing the medal she’d just received as the Pac-10 women’s rowing athlete of the year.  Shortly after that, she devoted herself to helping to ready the team for the May 30 NCAA Division 1 championships at Lake Natoma near Sacramento.

The day before the race was the only time O’Neill said he told Costello not to come to practice, as she had received the worst news yet from the doctors — her treatments hadn’t stopped the growth of the cancer, and the doctors had given her only a few weeks to live. O’Neill said knew how much it meant to Costello to take part in the finals and told her to rest, saying, “We need you at full strength.”

The following day, “Team Jill,” the varsity eight, took a second-place finish at nationals after giving it their all, and with fans and athletes from other schools also cheering them on.  “It was heart-wrenching when we didn’t win,” said O’Neill.

Costello died less than a month later, on June 24, 2010, but the power of her spirit lives on. She has been the subject of national media attention, including a profile in Sports Illustrated, and she inspired efforts to raise money and awareness for lung cancer that include Jog for Jill fundraisers.

During her last semester at UC Berkeley, Costello teamed up with the Bonnie Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, helping to raise $50,000 for lung cancer research and rallying 1,000 people for the initial Jog for Jill on Feb. 7, 2010. She requested that a Jog for Jill fundraiser be held every year after her death, and they’re occurring across the country. Through Jog for Jill and other events, more than $350,000 has been raised for lung cancer research so far.

At UC Berkeley, the women’s rowing team’s race with Stanford has been renamed “The Jill Row,” and the new varsity eight boat was christened “Beat Lung Cancer.”

“Jill inspired so many people in the last 15 months. As a coach, I’m certainly inspired and amazed by her, and with the power of what sports can do,” said O’Neill. “She would be very honored and proud of this NCAA Inspiration Award, and I’m sure she’s looking down on us.”

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