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updated: 9/6/2013 12:21 PM

Moving Picture: Cancer survivor leads students by example

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  • Video: Moving Picture: Survivor Coach

  • Rebekah Gillette of Elgin helps Kailyn Mahaffey, 11, of Carpentersville get her timing down in her floor routine at Spring Hill Gymnastics. The Greater Illinois Junior Olympics Competitive Program team meets three times a week and is a competitive team that helps young athletes get ready for high school gymnastics.

       Rebekah Gillette of Elgin helps Kailyn Mahaffey, 11, of Carpentersville get her timing down in her floor routine at Spring Hill Gymnastics. The Greater Illinois Junior Olympics Competitive Program team meets three times a week and is a competitive team that helps young athletes get ready for high school gymnastics.
    Emmalee Luckas | Staff Photographer

  • Rebekah Gillette climbs one of the Pink Heals fire trucks in order to find an open space for her signature during the group's visit to Elgin in early August. Firefighter Chuck Goins waits nearby with a helpful hand. The nationwide breast cancer awareness group stopped at the Spring Hill Gymnastics in West Dundee in support of some of their employees who have and are fighting cancer.

       Rebekah Gillette climbs one of the Pink Heals fire trucks in order to find an open space for her signature during the group's visit to Elgin in early August. Firefighter Chuck Goins waits nearby with a helpful hand. The nationwide breast cancer awareness group stopped at the Spring Hill Gymnastics in West Dundee in support of some of their employees who have and are fighting cancer.
    Emmalee Luckas | Staff Photographer

  • Rebekah Gillette leads the Greater Illinois Junior Olympics team in handstands at Spring Hill Gymnastics in Elgin.

       Rebekah Gillette leads the Greater Illinois Junior Olympics team in handstands at Spring Hill Gymnastics in Elgin.
    Emmalee Luckas | Staff Photographer

  • Gillette laughs as every one of her students on her GIJO team admits they were frightened of her when they first had her as a coach. An equal number of hands went up when they admitted that a tough coach was a good coach.

       Gillette laughs as every one of her students on her GIJO team admits they were frightened of her when they first had her as a coach. An equal number of hands went up when they admitted that a tough coach was a good coach.
    Emmalee Luckas | Staff Photographer

  • Gillette yells her support to one of her athletes. Gillette is a full-time coach at Spring Hill Gymnastics and has been cancer-free since December 2010.

       Gillette yells her support to one of her athletes. Gillette is a full-time coach at Spring Hill Gymnastics and has been cancer-free since December 2010.
    Emmalee Luckas | Staff Photographer

  • Gillette shows Mia Coken, 11, of Gilberts the correct position for her head during a gymnastics practice.

       Gillette shows Mia Coken, 11, of Gilberts the correct position for her head during a gymnastics practice.
    Emmalee Luckas | Staff Photographer

 
By Emmalee Luckas
Daily Herald staff photographer

Many people grow up being inspired by someone. A teacher, friend or coach who pushed you to achieve things greater than you ever thought possible.

Rebekah Gillette of Elgin hopes she is that person to every young man and woman she coaches.

Even after discovering a lump in her breast in 2008, Gillette made an inspiring commitment to follow through with coaching gymnastics, even if that meant taking a trash can to practice in case she was sick from chemotherapy.

Gillette learned from her own previous gymnastics coaches to work hard and never give up on her goals. Her athletes learned those things from her as they watched her battle cancer and remain the same tough coach, seemingly.

And when it was determined that the lump was precancerous, she underwent a lumpectomy and radiation. In 2009, doctors found the cancer had spread into her scar tissue. It was then she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer known as IBC or inflammatory breast cancer.

But Gillette would not let cancer stop her.

She would teach in the morning, go to the hospital for her treatments and return for her evening class. There were days when she was sick but would come to class and feel rejuvenated by teaching her students.

"For me, it was I'm not going to let this stop me and I'm not going to let these kids down," Gillette said.

She said she drew her strength from both her family and her drive as an athlete to push herself to keep her life going. Two days before Christmas in 2010, she was declared cancer-free after two years of treatment.

Having started her own career in gymnastics at the age of three, she was exposed to a spectrum of coaches and philosophies.

"After I had a run-in with a coach, I wanted to quit for a little bit," she said. "I went to a gym in Bartlett and that's where I met a coach who meant the world to me, the one who pushed me."

Gillette's own coaching philosophy centers on every child's need for a role model and supporter outside of the families.

"The support that I had was huge," Gillette said, "When you work for something for so long and you learn how to be determined in your sport you really learn how to not give up."

As director of cheer and tumble at Spring Hill Gymnastics in Elgin, she coaches kids from age 2 to 18, and also Spring Hill's Gymnastics' Greater Illinois Junior Olympics Competitive Program, which prepares young athletes for the competitive high school teams.

"My main goals as a coach is to motivate, inspire and make kids feel like, no matter what, somebody cares," she said. "I tell my kids all the time, I don't care about the trophies or what place we get as long as you do your best, give everything you can, and that you had a blast doing it. That's all that matters."

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