Former Gophers runner Gabriele Anderson twice has battled cancer, and through those struggles she tapped the inner power that has her competing for an Olympic berth.
Hearing it once was devastating. Hearing she had cancer a second time, Gabriele Anderson said, was unthinkable.
The Perham, Minn., native and former Gophers runner had beaten a rare form of the disease at age 22, returning to her sport to finish second in the 1,500 meters at the 2010 NCAA outdoor championships. Not long after she embarked on a professional running career, Anderson learned that cancer had invaded her thyroid, requiring more surgery and more treatment. As tough as it was to receive that news, she found hope in what her doctors did not tell her.
None of them ever said Anderson would not be able to run again. The thought of coming back to the track helped carry her through her first battle with cancer, and that victory gave her the strength to endure her second. With her health restored, the power of positive thinking still is playing out in Anderson's life as she pursues a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.
Anderson, who turned 26 on Monday, will run in the 1,500 meters Thursday at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. She said she is in the best condition of her career after setting a personal-best time of 4 minutes, 6.46 seconds this spring and defeating Morgan Uceny, ranked No. 1 in the world at the distance.
The women's 1,500 field is loaded with talent, including Uceny, world champion Jenny Simpson and 2008 Olympian Shannon Rowbury. But vanquishing cancer twice has shown Anderson just how hard she can fight and how brave she can be, qualities she now is applying to her running career.
"This has changed my perspective in a lot of ways,'' said Anderson, who lives in Minneapolis and trains with the Team USA Minnesota distance-running group. "Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I would let things get in the way of me doing my best, little things like not believing in yourself or not taking advantage of opportunities. I just really started to realize the clock is ticking. It's made me want to see what I can do with this and live with no regrets.''
Last December, Anderson completed her thyroid-cancer therapy with radioactive iodine treatments. She had surgery to remove the thyroid after the cancer was discovered in October 2010, as well as neck-dissection surgery to remove lymph nodes. She missed only three to four weeks of training and had a breakthrough season in 2011, setting herself up for a run at the Olympics.
That was a considerably faster recovery than Anderson experienced in 2009, when she was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma as a fifth-year senior at the U. During a trip to Arizona for a track meet, she got the news that the lump on her neck was a cancer of the salivary gland. The next day, she ran the sixth-fastest time in Gophers history in the 1,500, not knowing when -- or if -- she would run again.
Anderson soon underwent surgery and radiation treatments. Her skin was burned. She lost her sense of taste, and some of her hair fell out. But she never stopped thinking about running, and four months later Anderson's doctors allowed her to resume training.
Her competitive spirit kicked in quickly. At the 2010 NCAA championships, Anderson was in fifth place in the late stages of the 1,500 before unleashing a powerful kick that pushed her up to second.
"She has a will to win and a hate to lose that you could only hope to have,'' said her fiancé, Justin Grunewald, also a former Gopher and a distance runner. "She was out there sprinting people down. Any pain you're going to feel after 1,500 meters, it's nothing compared to what she's been through.''
Until that point, Anderson hadn't considered pursuing a professional running career. That race left her feeling she had not tapped her full potential, and she wanted to find it. She joined Team USA Minnesota, got a sponsorship from a shoe company and kept running away from cancer -- until it caught up with her again.
The thyroid cancer was unrelated to her first illness, and it was treatable. That made it no less dispiriting to an athlete only 18 months removed from her initial diagnosis.
"I felt blindsided by it,'' Anderson said. "I felt like I'd come so far in the past year and a half. I'd fought through this cancer. I had this great comeback personally and athletically. I just felt like I was ready to start living my life after cancer and beyond.''
She wasn't sidelined for long. Within a few months, Anderson returned to full speed, immersed in the challenging training program designed by Team USA Minnesota coach Dennis Barker. She finished third in last year's USA Indoor Championships mile and the USA 1-mile Road Championships, then went to compete in Europe and dropped her personal best to 4:06.77 at a meet in London.
Her hopes of returning there for the Olympics were buoyed by her season debut at the Occidental High Performance Meet in May. Anderson lowered her personal best again while defeating Uceny, then followed up with a third-place finish against a strong field at the Prefontain Classic.
"She is having a great year so far,'' Barker said. "She's a great runner, but I think the biggest thing with her is her tenacity. She has never wavered from her goal of competing at the Olympic trials. There are so many things she's looking forward to that she doesn't dwell on the negative things that have happened.''
Anderson said she is 100 percent healthy and hopes to coach a high school cross-country team in the fall. Her most fervent wish is to continue moving forward, going as fast as she can while savoring every step.
"Running in the past few years has taken me to new heights,'' Anderson said. "It's something that's brought me through so many tough times. I feel so blessed to have the health I have and to take advantage of it.''
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