Former U.S. track and field champion Gabriele Grunewald died yesterday at 32 years old, a decade after she was first diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Despite her diagnosis, Grunewald competed professionally in the middle distances at the highest level for six years after she graduated college in 2010, winning a national championship and nearly making the Olympics. Her husband Justin announced the news last night.
Grunewald walked onto the University of Minnesota track team and improved throughout her collegiate career. The day before a race during her senior season, Grunewald got the news that she had adenoid cystic carcinoma, a cancer of the salivary glands that affects roughly 1,000 people per year. Grunewald set a personal record in the 1,500 the next day. She was granted an extra year of eligibility, and despite enduring surgery and radiation treatment, she returned stronger than ever, finishing in second place in the 1,500 meters at the 2010 NCAA national championships.
Undaunted by her disease, Grunewald turned pro and signed an endorsement deal with Brooks. Her thryoid gland was removed in 2010 after cancer sprouted up there in 2010, and once again she came back with a vengeance. “It’s like I lost all excuses for not pushing myself to reach my fullest potential,” Grunewald told the New York Times.
Grunewald had her heart broken in 2012 when she fell one place short of qualifying for the Olympics, finishing fourth in her signature event at the U.S. Olympic Trials. At a Diamond League meet in Monaco one year later, she ran a personal best of 4:01:48, the 12th-fastest time ever among American women. Grunewald won her first American championship in 2014 with a 9:23.15 in the 3,000 meters.
She reached the 1,500 meter final at the 2016 Olympic Trials despite the return of her cancer; shortly after the race, her husband gave her a hug and noticed a mass in her stomach. The cancer had moved to her liver, half of which she had to have removed. Grunewald needed increasingly harsh chemotherapy treatments, yet she raced on, her long arching scar unhidden as she ran. The medicine drained her, but she made a point to keep racing.
Throughout the last three years, Grunewald has exhaustively chronicled her struggles with cancer and her efforts to keep running as long as she could. She became an inspirational figure to cancer survivors, young cancer patients, and runners everywhere, racing the 2017 season even as her body started to break down. Grunewald founded the Brave Like Gabe foundation, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and held several races in her name.
Grunewald jogged a 5K at one the foundation’s benefit races this April, and even when she couldn’t run, she biked alongside Justin as he trained for marathons. She was hospitalized earlier this month and eventually moved to comfort care in her home. True to form, as recently as April she was still hopeful that she’d be able to race to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.