On the day she learned she had cancer, Gabriele Grunewald made a decision that would define the rest of her life. Though she had a track meet the following afternoon, her coaches with the Gophers told her she could sit out the 1,500 meters, thinking she might need time to process the devastating news.
She wouldn’t hear of it. “It was important to me to run,’’ Grunewald said. “It’s important to do what you love when you have the opportunity to do it. This is what I love to do.’’
Grunewald, who died Tuesday evening at age 32 after a decade of fighting a rare cancer, awed her teammates with her courage that weekend. Her unwavering hopefulness would later inspire thousands more around the world. The Perham native kept right on running through three more bouts with the disease, forging a career as a professional athlete and U.S. champion while enduring surgeries, radiation treatments, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
Her death was announced on Instagram by her husband, Justin Grunewald.
After being near death earlier this month — and announcing “not today” when Justin told her she was dying — Gabe was readmitted to the intensive care unit at a Minneapolis hospital on June 4 with septic shock. She was given a new drug in the hope it would prolong her life.
Her liver function deteriorated early Sunday morning, and she was moved to comfort care. Monday, she was brought home to the couple’s Minneapolis condo, where she died surrounded by family and close friends.
After she was diagnosed in 2009 with adenoid cystic carcinoma, Grunewald refused to let go of her goals as a runner. Her quiet perseverance became a model of how to live fully and fearlessly, even in the shadow of unimaginable hardship.
“She was one tough son-of-a-gun,” said former Gophers cross-country coach Gary Wilson, who was at Grunewald’s bedside Monday. “Gabe was a fighter from the get-go. She gave people something we all need: hope. That’s her legacy.
“Thousands of lives will be saved because of what Gabe has done. She showed people they can fight, they can have hope, they can do it. She was amazing.”
Grunewald, who ran track and cross-country for the Gophers under her maiden name of Gabriele Anderson, was a fifth-year senior when she first learned she had cancer. Following surgery and radiation therapy, the former walk-on returned to competition and finished second in the 1,500 meters at the 2010 NCAA championships. She still holds the Gophers record in the 1,500, with a time of four minutes, 13.45 seconds.
Following her initial diagnosis, Grunewald said she was not wasting time worrying about the future. “I’ve come to terms with the reality of what might happen,” she said. “But I’ve also been able to take a step back and appreciate what I have. I want to live each day really enthusiastically and gratefully, just as anyone would.”
That philosophy guided her through recurrences of her cancer in 2010, 2016 and 2017. The disease spread to Grunewald’s thyroid, then to her liver, where the removal of a 4-pound tumor took half the organ and left her with a 13-inch scar. She did everything she could to hasten her recovery from all the surgeries and treatments, determined to keep racing.
Grunewald finished fourth in the 1,500 at the 2012 Olympic trials, missing the team for the London Summer Games by one spot. In 2014, she won the U.S. indoor championship in the 3,000, then finished 10th at that year’s world championships. Her personal-best time of 4:01.48 in the 1,500 is the 12th fastest ever by an American woman.
“When she had half her liver taken out, I saw her in the hospital the next day,” Wilson said. “I didn’t even ask her if she was going to run again. It was just a given.”
While running gave Grunewald strength and purpose in her fight against cancer, it also gave her a platform. She hoped that being public about her own struggles could lend support to others.
Her motto became “rest doesn’t cure cancer.” Grunewald’s grit and grace became a beacon for people dealing with life’s many burdens, helping them find their own courage. She began the Brave Like Gabe foundation to raise money and awareness for research into rare cancers, while her social media accounts accrued 77,000 followers.
When Grunewald’s health deteriorated, social media provided a virtual gathering place for friends and strangers to share their grief. Justin Grunewald chronicled Gabe’s final days on Instagram, where thousands described the impact she had on their lives.
HGTV star Chip Gaines, whom Gabe Grunewald trained for his first marathon, wrote, “All I ever want is to be #bravelikegabe.” Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher, a Duluth native, wrote, “Thank you for showing me what bravery looks like, and for being such a constant source of inspiration.”
Grunewald’s final racing season came in 2017, when she ran the 1,500 at the U.S. championships during an off week in her chemotherapy schedule. She missed the Brave Like Gabe 5k fundraiser around St. Paul’s Como Lake in May because of an infection. But she still delighted in running with Justin on the trails near the Mississippi River, where he said “everything else melts away.”
Striding down those roads never failed to refuel her optimism through 10 years of uncertainty, hospitalizations and setbacks. Last year, Grunewald wrote on the Brave Like Gabe website that she still hoped to try for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team.
She didn’t know whether she would be able to outrun cancer, but it wasn’t going to stop her from moving forward.
“Running has truly been my refuge,” Grunewald wrote. “Being brave, for me, means not giving up on the things that make me feel alive.”