As the pace began to quicken in her final NCAA race, Gabriele Anderson sneaked a glance at the scoreboard video screen. The time for the 1,500 meters had been leisurely, with most of the 12 runners poised to make a final kick. That meant last Saturday's NCAA championship would be decided in a mad sprint to the finish line at Oregon's Hayward Field.
Anderson felt a momentary shiver of panic race through her body. But the Gophers runner had been thinking of this day for more than a year, through cancer surgery and radiation therapy and the endless hours of work it took to become an athlete again.
"It was so important to me,'' she said. "I wanted my career to end like I knew it could. So I just started grinding.''
Over the final 75 meters, Anderson stormed from fifth place to finish second, tying the best finish ever by a Gophers athlete at the NCAA outdoor track championships. Her goal a year ago was simply to run again. On Saturday, fueled by the willpower that made her faster and stronger than ever, she could hardly believe how far she had come.
"People have said to me, 'She's running so well. Why?''' said Gophers coach Gary Wilson, who has guided Anderson for six seasons on the track and cross-country teams. "If you have cancer, you know why. Everything has been put into perspective.
"She willed herself to do this. And the way she fought, and what she's done, that's going to be a story around here forever.''
Anderson's 2009 outdoor season ended abruptly after she was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer. She had surgery to remove a tumor from her neck; a month later, she began several weeks of radiation therapy.
Already a fifth-year senior, Anderson thought her college athletic career probably was over. In December, the NCAA granted her an extra year of eligibility for outdoor track, and she found her greatest success this season. The Perham, Minn., native reached two of her three goals: setting a Gophers record in the 1,500 (4 minutes, 13.45 seconds) and earning all-America status by finishing in the top eight at the NCAA championships. She missed the third -- winning the Big Ten title -- when she finished second by 1/100th of a second.
Anderson couldn't have imagined that kind of ending last summer, when her doctors prohibited her from running so her body could direct all its energy toward healing. The radiation treatments burned her skin and caused some of her hair to fall out. She was told she might need to have a feeding tube inserted if the dryness and sensitivity in her mouth prevented her from getting enough nutrition.
But Anderson loved running too much to give it up, and she recognized how important it would be to her recovery. After nearly four months off, she was allowed to resume training last August.
"It was a rough time for me, because I was so out of shape,'' Anderson said. "It took a real leap of faith. I wanted to come back, but I was feeling insecure about whether I could be successful.
"I was trying to do something I'd never done before, and I had a lot of emotions wrapped up in running that I hadn't experienced before. I tried to believe it was OK to start slowly, that I had time. I wasn't so sure, but coach Wilson never had a doubt I would come back and do well.''
Once her fitness returned, Anderson had to fight the temptation to be satisfied with just competing again. Wilson pushed her out of her comfort zone, believing her toughness would take over.
When it carried her over the finish line Saturday, head coach Matt Bingle wept, and Wilson raced to the track to embrace her. Anderson plans to wear the Gophers uniform one more time, in next week's U.S. outdoor championships in Des Moines. After that, she intends to finish a master's degree in public policy and continue competing.
Her type of cancer has a high survival rate at the five-year mark, but it tends to recur later. Anderson will have to have MRI and CT scans to see whether the cancer has returned or spread.
Still, the past several months have taught her how strong she is -- and how far that can take her. "Anyone remotely involved in my life the past year has sensed this drive that I've had,'' she said. "Things like this can be devastating, but they can also put things in perspective and help you focus on what's really important.
"To have another year to try and accomplish things athletically that I hadn't been able to do, it's been overwhelming. I just feel so blessed. It's been a dream season.''
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org