Gabriele Grunewald, a Perham (Minn.) High School graduate one of the country’s top middle-distance runners and a national champion at the University of Minnesota, died, at her home in Minneapolis on Tuesday, June 11. She was 32.
Grunewald, born on June 25, 1986, in Perham, 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. 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 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 placed fourth in 4:07.38 at the 2012 Olympic Trials, just missing a chance to compete at the London Games.
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.