Gabriele Grunewald, a top middle distance runner who competed through multiple bouts of cancer, has died at the age of 32. She had drawn support from thousands on social media, where she chronicled her battle with the disease — or as she put it, “this challenging professional-runner-battling-cancer journey.”
Grunewald was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the salivary glands, in 2009, when she was a runner for the University of Minnesota, according to the Associated Press. She received the terrible news the day before a race — which she ran anyway, logging what was, at the time, her fastest 1,500-meter run, The New York Times reports.
Her resilience would surface time and again over the following difficult years. In 2010, Grunewald was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, but she nevertheless decided to go professional, competing through chemotherapy treatments and surgeries. By 2013, she was the eleventh fastest female 1,500-meter runner in American history, and in 2014, she became the U.S. indoor 3,000-meter champion.
View this post on Instagram
Today: 10 Years with Cancer . ❌2009: First diagnosis of Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma, PR in 1500, surgery, radiation. . ❌2010: PR in 1500, Runner-up at NCAA Champs, sign professional contract with @brooksrunning. Second diagnosis of Thyroid Cancer, surgery. . ❌2011: Radioactive iodine therapy, 3rd in mile at US Indoors, PR in 1500. . ⭕️2012: PR of 4:04 in 1500, 4th at US Olympic Trials. . ⭕️2013: PR of 4:01 in 1500, 8:42 in 3000, 2:01 in 800, Fastest mile on MN soil 4:21 (road). . ⭕️2014: US Champion Indoor 3000, 5th place US Outdoor 1500. . ⭕️2015: PR in 800, PR in 5000. . ❌2016: 15:19 5000m, US Olympic Trials Finalist in 1500m. Recurrence of ACC. Major liver surgery. . ❌2017: Another liver recurrence. Ran 4:12 1500 before racing USA Champs on chemotherapy. Immunotherapy clinical trial, radioembolization. . ❌2018: No races but I tried! Oh wait I won the Silo District 5k in Waco! 🤩 Immunotherapy and radioembolization. . ❌2019: No races (yet)! ERCP with stent procedure, new drug Lenvatinib. Still hopeful 🙏 . After all this, I’m so happy to be here and so thankful to everyone who has extended love to me on this insanely difficult journey. I couldn’t do it without you! I thank God for my fam, friends and @justingrunewald1. ❤️ . If you wanna make me smile today and help honor my journey — sign up for the @bravelikegabe 5k for rare cancer research! 🎉 As I’ve had to alter so many of my life’s goals, running for research is one that fills the void better than most. ❤️ . #cancerversary #ihatecancer #letsbeatcancer #beatrarecancers #inspiration #runningonhope #bravelikegabe #bravelikegabe5k
When her adenoid cystic carcinoma returned in 2016, Grunewald decided to share her story publicly, coining the motto “Brave Like Gabe,” which became the name of the foundation she started to support rare cancer research. She also encouraged others to share their own stories of adversity, be it cancer or simply “taking on a new fitness challenge.”
While running, Grunewald did not attempt to hide the large scar on her abdomen, the result of a life-extending surgery to remove half her liver and a large metastatic tumor. Living with the vestiges of her treatments — including a damaged facial nerve from neck surgery and a permanent bald spot from radiation — was not easy, but Grunewald recognized that her scars “represent survival,” she wrote earlier this year.
“My scars are a physical manifestation of what often feels like an invisible disease,” Grunewald said. “My scars tell my life’s story, and I’m pretty glad it’s not over yet.”
Even after her doctors found additional tumors in 2017, Grunewald began training for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But earlier this month, doctors told Grunewald that she would soon die.
When her husband, Justin Grunewald, broke the news to her, she “took a deep breath and yelled ‘NOT TODAY,’” he wrote on Instagram.
In the wake of his wife’s death, he once again took to social media to thank her supporters from around the world. “Gabriele heard your messages and was so deeply moved,” he wrote. “She wants you to stay brave and keep all the hope in the world.”