Genevieve Costello’s love of life poured out into the way she played basketball for UC Davis, laughed uncontrollably with friends and lived until her final moment.
The point guard from San Diego led the Aggies from 2005 to 2009 with a light-hearted fierceness. But on May 7, less than a month after Costello was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, the UCD family was hit hard with the news that she had died.
“In unfair situations such as these, it’s impossible not to feel angry, bitter, confused,” said Haylee Donaghe, a teammate of Costello’s for four seasons. “But none of these emotions belong in any memories including Genevieve. She was nothing but laughter, light and love.”
Those on the court with Costello, or those watching from the stands, describe her style of play as feisty, passionate, competitive and joyful.
“She was never one to step down from a challenge, and she approached each practice, each game, each day with an air of confidence and joy that inspired everyone around her,” Donaghe added.
Costello’s manner with teammates and friends was consistent, even when she learned on April 17 that she had stage IV breast cancer. Years of friendship had built a confidence in her teammates that if anyone could beat this, it was “Gen.”
“I remember a flight during a road trip that was terrifyingly turbulent,” Donaghe said. “I was sitting next to Gen, gripping my arm rests and on the verge of tears, as others on the plane screamed.
“I looked over at Gen, and she just laughed, nonchalantly grabbed my hand, and told me that we would definitely survive any accident. I believed her, too. Gen was fearless — even in the face of death. And she approached her battle with cancer the very same way.”
Costello, 26, took on the unexpected diagnosis — there is no history of breast cancer in her family — with the same tenacity that dominated her life. Her spirit spilled over to her friends.
“My initial reaction was shock, and then tears and finally fear,” said Paige Mintun, who played three years with Costello. “But Gen always had a fighter’s spirit. She was fearless. I knew I had to follow her example throughout the battle, so my mind was always centered on victory and hope.
“And like on the basketball court, I had all the faith in the world she’d overcome this, too, no matter what the doctors said,” Mintun added. “She was Gen; she never went out without a fight.”
UCD head coach Jen Gross had a similar experience after learning of Costello’s diagnosis.
“I called her immediately after I found out, not knowing how she would sound or what her reaction would be,” said Gross, who was an assistant coach during Costello’s freshman year. “But when she answered the phone, she was the same Genevieve … full of positivity and energy. She was a fighter and ready to beat this thing the day she was diagnosed. Unfortunately, the cancer was just too aggressive and never gave her a chance.”
The hallways of the UC San Diego Cancer Center overflowed with Costello’s family and friends. At times seemingly taking over the entire floor, people would sit together and share stories while waiting for their chance to spend time in her room. While battling cancer and the fatigue of the treatment, Costello remained upbeat and inspiring to those around her.
Tragically, the aggressive disease spread rapidly and her fight ended early. The youngest of five children, she is survived by her parents, Paul and Myrna Costello, and sisters, Minerva, Jennifer, Maria and Rose. Conservative guesstimates have 350 people coming to her viewing and 700 people at her funeral. Among those were UCD coaches and teammates.
“I’ve never been to anything like that,” said UCD assistant coach Des Abeyta, who mentored Costello for two seasons. “I wish everyone could have been at the services, then everyone could have heard the stories people were telling about her.
“As tragic as it is that she was 26 years old, within those 26 years she sure packed in a lot. She made it fun for those around her.”
Though fun-loving, Costello loved to compete on the basketball court. The higher the stakes, the more confident and self-assured she became.
In her senior year, the Aggies took on Stanford. Costello was one of seven players to suit up for injury-riddled UCD against the highly ranked Cardinal. The team’s one upperclassman took the reins, nailed an early 3-pointer and finished the night 5-of-7 from behind the arc in a losing situation.
“We weren’t sure where our scoring was going to come from, but Gen calmly buried her first 3-pointer a few minutes into the game,” Gross said. “Genevieve was always ready to compete.”
While no current Aggie players spent time on the court with Costello, they are aware of her legacy. And Gross and Co. are determined that future UCD players also will know of her. Costello graduated from UCD in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in exercise biology.
“Our coaching staff is definitely going to emphasize Genevieve’s best characteristics as we lead this program forward,” Gross said. “Genevieve was extremely loyal, competed with great passion and enjoyed every moment that she was on the floor. These are traits that exemplify true Aggie Pride. We will make sure that every future UC Davis women’s basketball player knows who Genevieve was and what she stood for.”
Costello’s demeanor on and off the court brought a sense of calm to a rather young Aggie squad; there were seven freshmen on the team her senior year. But right under that calm was the perfect storm ready to unleash on the opposition.
“Gen had a fighter’s spirit,” Mintun said. “She was always the smallest on the team, but she played like she was 6-foot-5. She was fearless. She didn’t care if you were bigger; she’d always find a way to triumph.”
Costello loved to laugh and make those around her laugh. Not just a “ha-ha” laugh, but a deep, true laugh that made people’s sides hurt and cheeks ache.
“Her spirit was captivating, her laugh contagious and when she smiled you couldn’t help but copy her,” Mintun said. “This was a girl who lived life.”
Donaghe added: “Gen had the best laugh. She was constantly throwing her head back and loudly cracking up, often at the most inappropriate times during team huddles, in a quiet restaurant or in the middle of study hall. I’m not sure how, but she always got away with it, probably because our coach couldn’t help but smile along with her as she started bubbling over.”
Costello loved living in the moment. She was not one to sit back and wait for adventure to find her; she went looking for it.
“Where we would say, ‘I’m gonna “fill-in-the-blank” one day,’ Gen would be the one to get up and just go do it,” Mintun said. “She lived like there was no tomorrow: She wanted a pit bull, she got a pit bull; she wanted a motorcycle, she got a motorcycle; she wanted to go to Paris, she went to Paris.”
— Reach Kim Orendor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @KOrendor