K.C. Oakley: A Moguls Skier With A Cause

By Peggy Shinn | Feb. 20, 2013, 11:01 a.m. (ET)

K.C. Oakley skis in the qualifications for the ladies dual moguls
during the Visa Freestyle International at Deer Valley on Feb.
2, 2013 in Park City, Utah.

Hand painted in gold letters on the back of K.C. Oakley’s blue ski helmet are the words “Beat Lung Cancer.” On her wrist is a rubber bracelet that also reads “Beat Lung Cancer,” along with a website called JillsLegacy.org.

Oakley, a 24-year-old moguls skier from California, isn’t just trying to make the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team. She also aims to raise awareness and research funding for lung cancer, a disease that three years ago killed her best friend Jill Costello, a varsity athlete who had never smoked.

Suddenly thrust into the middle of a situation that she had never imagined, Oakley was stunned by lung cancer statistics. According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer kills more people than any other type of cancer, and in the past 30 years, the number of women diagnosed with the disease has increased 106 percent. Every year, 16,000 to 24,000 non-smokers in America die of lung cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, if it were its own disease (separate from lung cancer caused by smoking), it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the U.S.

“More and more young women are getting lung cancer,” said Oakley. “It’s shocking. They’re slowly making strides in research now, but it’s not enough to increase the survival rate.”

Oakley met Costello at the University of California-Berkeley where freshman year, they shared three of four classes. Their friendship clicked immediately. Almost inseparable, they texted all the time and rushed Kappa Kappa Gamma. Costello watched her friend compete in moguls — and even tried skiing herself. Costello bragged about Oakley’s ski career, telling everyone that her best friend would make both the U.S. Ski Team and the Olympics one day. Oakley, who skied with a “K” on one knee patch and a “C” on the other (her name is just the initials K.C., a tribute to her three aunts named Kim, Candy, and Cindy), was never comfortable publicizing her own talent.

Oakley, in turn, would show up at Cal’s crew races, screaming and waving crazy signs to cheer on Costello. They were, as their private Facebook page said, two girls just having fun.

K.C. Oakley competes in the 2013 USANA Lake Placid Freestyle
Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y.

In June 2009, at the end of their junior year, Costello returned from NCAAs, where Cal finished second, and confessed to Oakley that she had been having bad stomach aches for about three weeks. Oakley suggested she see the Cal trainer in the morning.

The trainer sent her to the doctor. By evening, Costello was in the hospital.

“They’re keeping me overnight,” she texted Oakley. “They’re seeing spots on my lung and liver.”

By the following evening, doctors had narrowed down Costello’s diagnosis: Stage IV lung cancer. The disease had metastasized to other organs.

But it never crossed Oakley’s mind that her friend would die. She was young, a varsity athlete, and had never smoked. How could she have lung cancer?

In the 12 months that followed, Oakley never looked at the statistics. She didn’t want to know that over half the people diagnosed with lung cancer die within a year of being diagnosed, or that the National Cancer Institute lists the five-year survival rate for those diagnosed when the disease has spread beyond the lungs is a frightening 3.7 percent. She believed her best friend would live.

Oakley canceled most of her ski training plans for the summer, hung out with Costello, and went to chemotherapy treatments.

“We acted like it was a very normal life,” Oakley said. “It was a special time, a time I’ll always remember, but not a time that you imagine it’s going to be.”

Then in December 2009, Oakley graduated early and moved to Park City, Utah, to continue training and competing. She believed Costello would survive and the two would march together in graduation in May 2010.

They did just that. And a week after the graduation ceremony, Oakley dropped off Costello at crew practice. She had been named coxswain of the women’s eight competing at the upcoming 2010 NCAA Championships. Oakley wished her friend good luck and said goodbye. She had to get back to a training camp in Park City.

Before she left, Oakley asked, “You’ll tell me if this is bad enough that I need to come home, won’t you?”

In mid-June, Oakley called Costello on Skype and suddenly realized it was bad.

“For all this time, I was thinking she’s not going to die, and then all of a sudden, I was staring death in the eyes,” Oakley said.

Four days later, Costello stopped texting. Oakley flew home, but by the time she reached the hospital, it was too late.Costello died on June 24, 2010. She was 22.

One of the last messages Costello wrote in her journal was “Beat Lung Cancer Big Time.” So Oakley and a few other friends formed Jill’s Legacy to keep that dream alive. Jill’s Legacy aims to mobilize young people to erase the stigma of lung cancer and raise funds for research through events such as Jog for Jill, 5-kilometer run/walks at university campuses across the U.S. Since its inception in 2011, Jill’s Legacy has raised over $1.2 million for its umbrella organization, the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, and lung cancer research.

K.C. Oakley competes in the 2013 USANA Lake Placid Freestyle
Cup in Lake Placid, NY.

Oakley has balanced the cause with her moguls career — which began when she was 13 at Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe under the guidance of her cousin, the late Clay Beck, who had also coached two-time Olympic medalist Shannon Bahrke. The winter after Costello died, Oakley’s no-regrets, make-the-U.S.-Ski Team-or-bust attitude led her to win the overall NorAm title and finish second at the 2011 U.S. Championships. She was named to the U.S. Ski Team that spring. The following season, she finished the World Cup season ranked ninth overall, was named World Cup Rookie of the Year, and won her first national title.

Last October, Oakley helped organize a Jog for Jill at the University of Utah. The event attracted 100 participants and raised $9,000. And last year, during the World Cup at Deer Valley, she organized a fundraiser at a Park City restaurant that raised over $2,000.

“It was awesome because the World Cup lays a ground for awareness,” she said. “Ten thousand people come out, and I’m talking about Jill’s Legacy on the speaker after my run, and the announcers are talking about the party benefitting Jill’s Legacy.”

“It’s such an amazing thing that she’s doing,” said U.S. teammate Heather McPhie. “The things that’s K.C.’s experienced and her attitude about it all is really great. I hope to be involved moving forward.”

For the next year, Oakley’s primary focus is on making it to Sochi. She knows she has all the pieces to take her skiing to the next level. She’s already placed third on the World Cup last year and is again ranked in the top 10 this year.

“I’m consistently the fastest skier, and I have very strong turns,” she said. “But I’m a little messy in that I don’t always squeeze my legs, and my jumps are mediocre.”

Even if she can’t focus on Jill’s Legacy as much as she would like in the coming year, her friend isn’t far away.

“I know she is an angel on my shoulder,” wrote Oakley on her website, “and I carry her in my heart every day.”

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.