By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Sports Illustrated has published few articles as powerful or as poignant as the piece on Jill Costello that appeared in late November.
The story had a UVa connection.
Costello, a member of the University of California women’s rowing team, passed away June 24, 2010, after a yearlong battle with lung cancer. About a month before her death, she was the coxswain on Cal’s Varsity Eight, its top boat, at the NCAA championships near Sacramento, Calif.
The Bears’ coach, Dave O’Neill, is married to Nicole Younts, who rowed for Kevin Sauer at UVa in the late 1990s. O’Neill and Younts (now the rowing coach at St. Mary’s College in California) were married in Charlottesville, in fact, at the UVa Chapel.
“We even had a Cal oar and a Virginia oar crossed coming out of the chapel,” said Sauer, the Cavaliers’ longtime coach.
Cal and UVa are the among the perennial powers in Division I rowing, a sport with about 90 teams. “Everybody knows everybody,” Sauer said. He and O’Neill are fiercely competitive rivals “recruiting-wise and on the water, but there’s mutual respect and friendship between us as well.”
When Sauer learned that Costello, a non-smoker, had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, the news stunned him. He checked the CaringBridge website for updates on her health and periodically posted messages of encouragement to her there.
His rowers were aware of Costello’s illness too, and the team talked about it several times during the 2010 season, Sauer said. And as the NCAAs approached, the Wahoos knew that Costello was back at Cal after making a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France.
Costello rejoined the team before the Pac-10 championships and, for the first time, coxed Cal’s Varsity Eight. The Bears won the Pac-10 title and headed to the NCAAs, where they had finished second in 2009.
At the NCAA championships, the team title was still undecided heading into the final race. If Virginia finished ahead of Cal and Stanford in the Varsity Eight, the ‘Hoos would capture their first NCAA crown in that sport. If Cal finished ahead of UVa, the Bears would be NCAA champions.
The Cavaliers, of course, were not denied. Virginia finished second to Yale in the Varsity Eight to win the NCAAs with a total of 87 points. Cal, fourth in the Varsity Eight, finished second overall with 82 points.
Costello graduated from Cal last May with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Had she also been part of an NCAA championship, Sauer said, “it would have been an amazing story. It’s an amazing story anyway, of heart and perseverance and, as you can tell from the article in SI, love by her teammates and the impact that she’s had on that team and that community.”
The coxswain, the only one in the boat without an oar, is smaller than the rowers. She faces them, steering with rudder lines and giving instructions to her teammates.
“Obviously for her to be physically involved, to be a rower, that would have been impossible with her illness,” Sauer said. “But as a coxswain, to use her head and whatever energy she had, to be able to do that, was incredible.
“Coxing is not a huge physical deal, but mentally and emotionally, it’s unbelievable. So to rise to the occasion like she did at Pac-10s and the NCAAs, in the condition she was in, was truly amazing.”
Sauer knew Costello’s story, but they did not meet until after the final race at the NCAAs last year.
“I sought her out and just said, ‘First of all, great race, and I’m sorry for what you’ve gone through. I’ve been praying for you this whole time,’ ” Sauer recalled, “and she said thanks. Little did I know that she was going to pass away a month later.”
Jog for Jill runs, which raise money for lung-cancer research, have been held around the country since Costello’s death, and Sauer would be interested in incorporating that, if possible, into the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler, a race in which his teams compete every year.
“Something to honor Jill,” he said. “She made a huge impact on a lot of people and obviously still is.”
The Sports Illustrated article is titled “The Courage of Jill Costello,” and you can read it here. It will be time well-spent.