Gabriele Grunewald, one of the country’s top middle-distance runners and a national champion, died on June 11, at her home in Minneapolis. She was 32.
Grunewald, born on June 25, 1986, in Perham, Minnesota, is survived by her husband, Justin Grunewald; her parents, Kim and Laura Anderson; sister, Abigail Anderson; and brothers Zach, Caleb, and Ben Anderson.
She was one of the nation’s most adored track and field athletes, openly sharing her life with cancer in recent years with the hope that her transparency would inspire others to pursue their goals even amid personal struggles. With the help of friends, Grunewald started a foundation called Brave Like Gabe in 2018 to raise funds and awareness for rare cancer research, as well as empower cancer survivors through physical activity.
Adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC) first presented in Grunewald’s salivary gland in 2009, when she was a senior competing for the University of Minnesota. After discovering a lump under her left ear, she was diagnosed with the form of cancer that about 1,200 people are afflicted with each year in the U.S. There is no cure.
When she got the news via a phone call from her doctor, Grunewald was at a track meet at Arizona State University. But she didn’t let it get in the way of her plans, clocking a then-personal best in the 1500 meters the following day. She went on to have surgery and radiation, but returned to the team the next season, earning All-America honors and runner-up at the NCAA championships.
In the following years, Grunewald pushed through the worst times with similar drive and tenacity, although she lived with the knowledge that ACC usually reappears at some point, in another part of the body, typically the lungs or liver.
In 2010, cancer returned in an unrelated form, this time in her thyroid. It was cured in 2011 through surgery and radioactive iodine treatments. Grunewald jogged to and from her treatments and enjoyed a mostly uninterrupted few years of training after that.
Her athletic achievements at the University of Minnesota led to a post-collegiate contract with Brooks and a membership with Team USA Minnesota, where she was coached through much of her career by Dennis Barker. She showed tremendous potential almost immediately, placing fourth in 4:07.38 at the 2012 Olympic Trials, just missing a chance to compete at the London Games. It was a promising outcome in the early stages of her professional career—and motivation to keep at it for another four years.
In 2013 at a competition in Monaco, Grunewald clocked her lifetime 1500-meter best of 4:01.48. And by the 2014 U.S.A. Track & Field Indoor Championships, she was healthy and in peak performance. She won a national title in the 3,000 meters, qualifying to compete for Team USA at the world championships in Poland, where she placed 10th.
Grunewald entered the 2016 Olympic Trials focused on the 5,000 meters, but when she failed to advance to the finals, she entered the 1500 meters an hour later, in a last effort to make the team. She advanced through the rounds, but finished the final in 12th in 4:18.73. After taking some time off to recover and reevaluate her goals, she decided to come back to training to take another shot at the Olympics in 2020.
“Truthfully, I’m not sure what the next few years of my career will look like but I am excited to continue the journey and apply the wisdom that comes from failure,” she wrote on Instagram, after the 2016 Trials. “Because, like Thomas Edison, I do indeed believe that ‘many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close to success they were when they gave up.’ So, nope, not giving up. Not yet!”
Not long after, however, Grunewald found herself back at the hospital after her husband Justin, who is a doctor, felt something hard on the right side of her abdomen. It turned out that she had competed in the 2016 Trials with a four-pound tumor in her liver—a recurrence of the ACC and her third bout of cancer. She had surgery that August to remove the tumor, which left a 13-inch fishhook-shaped scar across her lower right side, but it came back in March 2017—her fourth recurrence—in the form of smaller, inoperable tumors on her liver.
While formulating a treatment plan, which eventually included immunotherapy and clinical trials, Grunewald continued competing in pursuit of a 4:09.52 qualifying time to enter the 2017 U.S. outdoor championships. She ran meets across the country in between chemotherapy appointments, but the closest she got was 4:12.29 at a race in Los Angeles.
Luckily, space remained in the U.S. championships field and she was granted a spot on the starting line in Sacramento. In 100-degree heat, while on chemo, she finished in 4:31.18. Her competitors huddled and embraced her at the finish, as the crowd gave her a standing ovation.
Although Grunewald pushed to make a comeback in 2018, the race in Sacramento was her final competition as a professional athlete. But it marked a significant shift in how she approached running; the sport became an important platform for raising awareness and funds for rare cancer research, as well as inspiring other cancer survivors around the world to remain active and engaged in their goals.
During one of her many visits to New York, where she was receiving care at Memorial Sloan Kettering, she had a chance encounter in Central Park with Chip and Joanna Gaines, of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.” A fan of the home-improvement show, she approached Chip, who expressed interest in running. The friendship formed and Grunewald offered to coach him through his first marathon—the Gaines family launched the Silo District Marathon event in Waco, Texas, and donated $250,000 of proceeds from the race to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, raising another $300,000 this year.
— Chip Gaines (@chipgaines) June 9, 2019
Grunewald began to put more of her time and energy into the Brave Like Gabe foundation, raising money at various charity events, as well as helping to formulate a system to disburse funds to research organizations. This year, the organization granted its first round of funds, which included a $100,000 challenge gift with Cycle for Survival, to create the Brave Like Gabe Fund for Rare Cancer Research at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
The more Grunewald shared her story—usually through Instagram posts—the more she gained a following of cancer survivors who drew support and inspiration from her experiences. Her final dispatch came on May 4, when she was admitted with an infection to Abbott Northwestern Hospital, right before her second annual Brave Like Gabe 5K, causing her to miss the event. She asked her followers to send some “extra brave vibes” as she underwent a procedure, but made sure to wish all the runners well.
“Have a heck of a time out there and celebrate what you’ve helped support and accomplish through the research grant!” Grunewald wrote. “So overwhelmed by the love and I can’t wait to hear the recap.”
From that point on, Justin continued sharing updates regarding his wife’s health on Instagram. On June 3, he wrote that Grunewald had been transferred to intensive care following lab results that were “incompatible with life.” He said she was moved to comfort care and he was trying to prepare her for death, but Grunewald wasn’t ready.
“Not today,” she said, according to his post, and she was moved back to the ICU for additional treatment until Sunday, when it became apparent that her health was significantly declining. On Monday, she was moved home to the condo she shared with Justin and was surrounded by her family and friends.
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*** update read whole post *** It breaks my heart to say but overnight Gabriele’s status worsened with worsening liver function causing confusion. Wanting to do her no harm we have made the difficult decision to move her to comfort cares this afternoon. I wanted to let you all know while she is still alive so you can send her one last message here or on her wall or on her phone before she heads up to heaven. I wrote this to her a couple years ago below and wanted to share what she means to me. Dear Gabriele, First, thank you. Thank you so much for showing me what it's like to be and feel alive. It's easy to pass through life day to day and punch a time card wishing away the hours. Currently although I don't always show it, I cherish every second. Whether we are out running, binging on a new Netflix series, or just lying in bed being lazy. Nothing beats the feeling I get when I see your smiling face. I know life is scary and I know we have won the lottery of uncertainty, and it's not fair, but I still choose our life of uncertainly and at times fear, over any alternative option I could think of. I have so much fun with you and have learned more from having you as my best friend and wife than I learned in the rest of my life combined. I know you have been given the heaviest of tasks in life. The task of being brave despite feeling enormous amounts of fear. The task of smiling when your throat wells up with pain and eyes want to fill with tears, but I don't think you were chosen by random chance, and again I know that's not fair but you are so amazing at being you and that's why I feel bravelikegabe is so special. Because there isn't a word in the dictionary for what you do or who you are. Brave flails in comparison to what you are to me and to so many people out there facing the simplest and silliest of struggles in day to day life. At the end of the day people won't remember the PRs run or the teams qualified for but they will remember that hard period in their life where they were losing hope but they found inspiration in a young lady who refuses to give up. I love you ❤️ #bravelikegabe #runningonhope
In a letter Justin wrote to Grunewald, which he published on Sunday, he said, “I know you have been given the heaviest of tasks in life.”
“At the end of the day, people won’t remember the PRs run or the teams qualified for,” Justin wrote, “but they will remember that hard period in their life where they were losing hope, but they found inspiration in a young lady who refuses to give up.”
To make a donation to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation or find out more about its mission, visit the website.