Middle-distance runner Gabriele Grunewald ranked as the 12th-fastest American woman in the 1,500m. What makes her feat all the more remarkable is that it was achieved despite being diagnosed with cancer not once, but four times during the course of her medal-strewn career.

Grunewald, who was 32, was born Gabriele Anderson in Perham, Minnesota.  As an undergraduate, she represented the University of Minnesota at Track and Cross Country.

It was while she was a student there in 2009 that Grunewald was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. It was adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of the disease that attacks the salivary glands. Speaking to Cosmopolitan about that first diagnosis, Grunewald said, “In that moment I had a swirl of different thoughts, but as a 22-year-old, I think I mainly thought I was gonna get through it. I never expected to run so much faster after a cancer diagnosis. But I was really motivated to get the most out of myself.”

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And so she did. After surgery and radiation therapy, Grunewald returned to the track and saw her performance improve dramatically. In a 2018 interview for Inside Athletics, Grunewald described how having cancer might have given her the edge she needed to become a champion.

She said that post-diagnosis and treatment, “I just saw myself in a different way and I sort of lost some of those excuses I had and it just changed the way that I thought about myself and my goals, and also gave me a sense of urgency in trying to complete them.”

Grunewald’s husband, Justin, has said he will now run the charity his late wife set up (AP)

Grunewald subsequently shaved 10 seconds off her best 1,500m time and finished second in the 1,500m at the 2010 NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Championships.

However, Grunewald was stymied again a year later when she discovered she also had a tumour in her thyroid. She duly had her thyroid removed. Then, having only recently completed a course of radiotherapy, she came fourth in the US 1,500m trials for the 2012 London Olympics. She missed out on representing the US in London by just one place.

The next couple of years saw more success. In 2014, Grunewald represented the United States in the 3,000m at the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) World Indoor Championships, coming ninth. That same year, she was US national champion in the USA Indoor Track and Field Championships. However, her win there was not without controversy. She was briefly disqualified following a complaint by Jordan Hasay’s coach. Hasay subsequently withdrew the appeal her coach had made on her behalf and Grunewald’s win was reinstated.

Alas, Grunewald’s adenoid cystic carcinoma returned in 2016 but despite undergoing surgery to remove half her liver that August, Grunewald did not slow down. On the race track in her cropped running top, she bore her scars proudly. She took bronze in the 2016 USATF One Mile Road Championships.

In March 2017, Grunewald’s cancer resurfaced – this time surgery was not a possibility. All the same, Grunewald remained true to her passion for running, setting herself the challenge of competing in the 1,500m at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships. She trained through chemotherapy and made it to the meeting in Sacramento. After her heat, Grunewald’s fellow competitors enveloped her in a prayer circle. It was to be Grunewald’s last professional race.

Though forced to retire, Grunewald continued to be an inspiration to a new generation of athletes. She established the Brave Like Gabe Foundation to raise funds for research into rare cancers. When actor Chip Gaines inaugurated the Silo District Marathon in Waco, Texas, he cited Grunewald as his inspiration. The race raised more than $500,000 for her charity.

Grunewald remained sanguine and optimistic throughout. Talking to FloTrack in 2017, Grunewald said, “It’s important to not feel alone in these hard situations. It’s cool to have people open their mind to the fact that they may be going through cancer, but they can’t give up on their life and their dreams. Ultimately, that’s the message that I want to send.”

Grunewald is survived by her husband, Dr Justin Grunewald.

Gabriele Grunewald, American athlete, born 25 June 1986, died 11 June 2019

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