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UIC's Head Trainer Honored After Battle With Cancer

By Justin Breen | December 18, 2012 7:44am

NEAR WEST SIDE — When Mike Gilmartin crossed the finish line of a half-marathon last summer alongside his daughter, it represented the culmination of the Chicago native's hard-fought battle against cancer.

Now, almost 18 months after his tonsillar cancer went into remission, Gilmartin not only has run five more half-marathons, he's back at full strength as the beloved head trainer of the University of Illinois at Chicago Flames.

And in addition to inspiring athletes, coaches and his fellow trainers, he's become a source of motivation for the entire campus. Last month, Gilmartin won the school's "INSPIRE" Award, given to the person who exemplifies "UIC's core values on a daily basis through their work and attitudes."

 Mike Gilmartin has been the head trainer at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1996.
Mike Gilmartin has been the head trainer at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1996.
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University of Illinois Chicago/Steve Woltmann

"People have been drawn to him, by his personal struggle," said Denny Wills, the school's senior associate director of athletics and Gilmartin's supervisor. "Even the people that didn't have daily interaction with Mike were drawn to his story. He was a galvanizing force in the whole department."

Gilmartin was diagnosed with cancer on Nov. 20, 2010, he went into remission on June 13, 2011. During that 205-day span, he lost his sense of taste, not to mention 45 pounds.

"He was so thin in the face," associate athletic trainer Pat Donovan said of the 6-foot-1-inch Gilmartin, who was down to 140 pounds at the low point. "When I saw him for the first time [in April 2011], it was definitely shocking and eye opening."

Gilmartin was strapped to a feeding tube for as many as 15 hours a day. He couldn't swallow or speak, and used sign language and a dry-erase board to communicate.

"One day, I just broke down," said Gilmartin, who said he received anti-depression medication.

Gilmartin, who grew up in Norwood Park and graduated from Taft High School, also couldn't work.

That wasn't easy for the 54-year-old, who routinely had grinded out 65-hour weeks on campus, handling administrative duties in addition to standard duties as the men's basketball lead trainer and working with athletes from all 15 Flames teams.

He also was a helpful sounding board for UIC players. When then-junior men's basketball forward Anthony Kelley tore his hamstring during the 2010-11 preseason, he said Gilmartin kept him focused and "on track to get back into shape and game form."

"That's why it was tough to personally hear what he was going through," said Kelley, who is part of a 9-1 Flames team this season — UIC's best start since the 1997-1998 campaign — heading into Tuesday's game at Western Illinois. "I think we all knew he had it in him to get through it."

Gilmartin endured five days a week of radiation over seven weeks and three six-hour chemotherapy treatments.

"The chemo is the worst because you don't feel good at all for three to four days," he said.

Gilmartin, who's been at UIC since 1996, received numerous support cards. Donovan, a Garfield Ridge native, created a get-well video from members of the Flames' community.

"Those are the types of things that got me through this," Gilmartin said.

Gilmartin said he weighs 165 pounds now, ideal for one of his other passions: running. The Elmhurst resident has finished five half-marathons this year. His top time was 1:49.48 — an 8:23-mile average — at the Prairie State Half-Marathon on Oct. 6.

But his favorite event was the 2011 Rock & Roll Half-Marathon, which he ran with his daughter, Annie, on Aug. 14. The duo crossed the finish line in just less than three hours.

"He could have run the whole thing, but I was the one who kind of held him back so we could finish it together," said Annie Gilmartin, a UIC senior who lives downtown. "It was a great feeling to finish it with him."

Gilmartin still works long hours, but he also appreciates time away from campus. He recently watched The Who live and plans to see Soundgarden and Bon Jovi.

His demeanor also has transformed.

"I don't get near as angry at things as I used to. It's not worth it," he said. "Life is beautiful right now."