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Lauren Hill's courage, winning spirit eclipsed any championship

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Remembering Lauren Hill (3:00)

Tom Rinaldi reflects on the life and legacy of Lauren Hill, who died Friday at age 19 of pediatric brain cancer. (3:00)

One thing accepted by almost all athletes who become serious competitors is this: the necessity of pain tolerance.

No one becomes proficient at any level in sports without pushing consistently beyond a comfort point. And those who become great push far past what they thought they could handle.

The purpose of the pain, of course, is the proverbial "gain." The payoff is success, which means winning. Right?

Well, what if the pain is for a gain that is much harder to quantify than wins and losses? What if it's a gain that's not even for the person who endured the pain, but for people she never met?

This is a big reason why Lauren Hill captured the hearts of her fellow athletes -- of the pro, college, high school and weekend-warrior varieties -- so completely. They saw in her a part of themselves that is so essential to who they are. They connected with her through the character traits that all competitors share.

Yet they had to think about just how much pain -- physical and emotional -- Hill was enduring for a gain that wouldn't actually help her.

Hill certainly didn't want to have to battle this foe: diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. It's a particularly monstrous kind of brain cancer that, steadily and cruelly, took more and more away from Hill, until at last it took her life on Friday.

Like any teenage athlete, she had wanted to play her sport in college, go to classes, make new friends, build a foundation for the future. Her diagnosis effectively ended all those dreams before they'd even begun, but Hill refused to stop being a competitor.

Everyone involved in sports at times overuses or misuses terms of "battle." And it can take an actual fight that has the highest possible stakes to remind us all of the difference between the real thing and a game.

But at the same time, it's also important not to completely minimize "the game," either. Because Hill taking the court, even if briefly, in a game for Mount St. Joseph was one of the highlights of the sports world in 2014.

Fellow basketball players from LeBron James to Elena Delle Donne made it a priority to reach out to Hill, to let her know they were on her side. That, essentially, was what Hill was able to do: recruit thousands of "teammates" to join her in trying to thwart cancer.

She proved to be a master recruiter, and that says something about both the courage of Hill and the conviction of the athletes who were moved to action to help. When Hill and everyone else celebrated her scoring a collegiate basket, there was a particular poignancy about that moment. One "little" action that so many take for granted was for Hill a great triumph.

And all athletes who watched her had to ask themselves: "What if this were me? What if almost everything was taken away from me as an athlete, except my will to compete? Would I have the heart still to do it, even if my body was failing me?"

Hill had that heart, and by putting it on display so openly, she brought an honor to the pursuit of athletics that far eclipses any championship ever won.