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Gabriele Anderson Continues Beating The Odds

Minnesota runner ready for this week's U.S. Track & Field Championships.

Minnesota runner ready for this week’s U.S. Track & Field Championships.

Stepping onto the track at Hayward Field last summer for Heat 2 of the 1500m semifinal felt like a finish line of sorts for Gabriele Anderson. She went through the motions of warming up, unshaken by the fact that she was not among the favorites to make the Olympic team. As the gun fired, she sprang from the line.

Making for a tactical race, a blazing fast first lap made way for a pedestrian second lap. Anderson kept reminding herself to simply stay with the pack and maintain position. Although she always had a kick, she knew that she often employed it too late to make an impact. This time, she told her former coach from the University of Minnesota, Gary Wilson, she’d be the first to kick.

With under 300 meters to go, something unexpected happened. Running in the inside lane, another runner began to lean into her. She reacted by putting up her arm to avoid getting run off the track. To be sure, jostling for position is a skill known to every experienced 1500m runner and she wasn’t about to let it impede her kick. Staying on her feet, she managed to snag second place in the heat with a time of 4:10:08, right behind Shannon Rowbury. She was going to the finals.

It wasn’t until later that night that she discovered the contact she had with that other athlete might end up being more significant than routine jockeying. Her coach, Team USA Minnesota’s Dennis Barker, got the call that evening that she he had been disqualified as a result of a protest from another athlete. Although Barker filed an appeal, Anderson braced for the worst. She was beside herself.

Fairly new to the elite scene, she made a call to Wilson, who had ushered her through an impressive collegiate career. Instead of giving gentle assurances, his response was signature no-nonsense Wilson.

“I said, ‘Suck it up because we don’t know if you’ll remain DQ’d,” he remembers saying. Then he went on to make an undeniable point: “’You beat cancer, you’ve been through a lot more than this.’” She knew he was right. So she went to bed that night, unsure of whether or not she’d be racing 36 hours later, but knowing she would survive no matter the circumstances.

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Surviving is something Anderson has proven to be particularly adept at. The 26-year old has beaten cancer — twice. First in 2009 and then in 2010. Indeed, the Division I walk-on from small town Minnesota came a long way to vie for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. And while cancer certainly doesn’t define her, she has very few regrets because she wouldn’t want to be anywhere but where she is today. Even still, she doesn’t like to make predictions about the future, knowing life often dishes up unexpected challenges. Everyone who is acquainted with her, however, is watching with great interest, certain she’s poised to accomplish big things.

Small Town Harrier

“Gabe,” as she is known by teammates and competitors, grew up in Perham, Minn., a town of just under 3,000 people in the central part of the state. In addition to claiming the world’s largest fish decoy show, the sleepy, bucolic town sits in a county that has over 1,000 lakes.

Growing up with four siblings, sports were a mainstay on the Anderson family schedule. Still today, when she travels home she recruits the other Anderson offspring to support her in workouts.

“Last Christmas I got all three of my brothers do parts of a hill workout with me,” she laughs. “There are no hills in Perham, so we did them in the snow on the off ramp to Highway 10. It was freezing.”

By seventh grade, Anderson was locked into cross-country, basketball, and track. Senior year she was the basketball team captain, which may have been part of the reason why Wilson had so much trouble convincing her to come to the University of Minnesota.

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“She was a pain in the ass,” he says with a smirk. “She couldn’t make up her mind.” In spite of this, once he finally convinced her to come visit in May of her senior year, Wilson was immediately struck by her presence. “As she walked into my office, before her feet even hit the ground, I knew this kid was something special,” he remembers.

After the visit, Anderson decided to walk on to the team. While she had the grit required of a great athlete, her first cross country season proved to be a struggle. Then came steady improvements, but her 4:20-mid personal best in the 1500m didn’t give any indication that she’d eventually be within reach of a spot on the Olympic team. As the English and political science major began to ponder what would come after college, she entered her senior track season in the spring of 2009 figuring she’d soon begin job searching.

Change of Plans

Life plays tricks on us sometimes. Just when we think everything is in order, it can cave in on top of us. This is what happened to Anderson. During her final track season, a lump in her neck she noticed several months earlier became painful, causing her to schedule a doctor’s visit. A brief exam confirmed that it was a tumor and they’d need to take a small sample. After the appointment she boarded a plane to Tempe, Ariz. with her teammates to run at the Sun Angel Invitational. Life would continue as usual until she was told otherwise.

Then, the day before her race the call came from her doctor. She had adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the salivary gland. Despite the fact that this type of tumor can often spread along nerve tracts making surgery challenging, her doctors ordered her in as soon as possible. They would perform the delicate operation to remove the tumor, a parotid gland, and several lymph nodes that same week.

She called Wilson to meet down by the pool in the hotel in Tempe. “She often doesn’t show her emotions, but she was really shaken,” says Wilson. Her teammates joined her and they broke the news.

Anderson’s boyfriend (now fiancé) Justin Grunewald was also there as a member of the Gopher men’s team. “She got the call and it was this scary, weird moment,” he recalls.

It was then that Anderson made a decision that would be particularly indicative of how she’d deal with adversity: She would still race. Before traveling back home to reality, she toed the line for the 1500m. She stood on the track knowing cancer was growing in her body and the future she once took for granted was now murky. Despite this, she charged around the oval, finishing in 4:22:87, a PR and the sixth fastest time in Gopher history.

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“I don’t think I could have done that,” says Grunewald. “I definitely struggled in my own race that day because cancer was on my mind.”

Upon coming back to earth in Minnesota, Anderson had her operation and began radiation therapy. That spring and summer she went through eight weeks of radiation treatments five times each week. Her hair fell out, she was fatigued all day every day, and the treatments burned her skin. She was even told she might need a feeding tube if she couldn’t produce enough saliva to take in adequate nutrition.

Despite this, Wilson contends, “she’s got a spirit that just will not quit; she’s one tough hombre.” It was a far cry from what she had in mind for her final collegiate season, but she rose to the challenge. Meanwhile, her teammates and competitors alike rallied around her. The Gophers affixed “Gabe” patches to their uniforms in a sign of solidarity. They made t-shirts with her picture that read, “Are you this tough?” She was still their captain and teammate regardless of cancer.

By the time August came, her doctors gave her the green light to begin running again. After filing for a medical hardship with the NCAA, she was granted another season of eligibility in track as she finished a master’s degree in public policy. The thing she was afraid of losing the most — running and competition — was suddenly restored. Starting from scratch, the fall and winter seasons were devoted to slowly building fitness and confidence. By Thanksgiving she was able to finish a 5K road race and in January she began racing on the indoor track again.

Then came the fireworks. Those incremental improvements she made her first few years of college, turned into leaps and bounds after cancer. Exactly one year after her diagnosis, she ran a 4:20:56 at the Sun Angel Invitational in Arizona. By the time Big Tens came around, she finished second in both the 1500m and the 800m, missing the title in the former by just .01 of a second.

“There’s no doubt I’m a different runner than I was before cancer and I’m not sure exactly why,” she says. “I saw it as a challenge I guess. I had this concrete goal to get through the whole experience of surgery and treatment and return to running to be the best runner I could be. All those things took on a different meaning when it got taken away from me. After cancer, I chose not to let anything hold me back.”

Rounding out a stunning season, she seized second in the 1500m at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which was good enough to tie the best finish ever by a Gopher athlete at the meet. She also finished her collegiate career with a 4:13:45 PR, besting the school’s record.

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“People ask how she did all those things as a sixth year senior. Every time she lined up, she’d look at her competitors and think, ‘I’m going to kick your butt,’” says Wilson. “I knew I may never see anything like what she did again — that spirit of ‘I’m never going to give up.’”

Grunewald also knew this season was something special. “Words can’t describe what it was like watching her,” he said. “It was phenomenal. Every race she got faster, 4:17. 4:16, down to 4:13. It was inspirational.”

Charting a Course

It wasn’t until this remarkable final collegiate season that it occurred to Anderson she may have a future in the sport beyond the University of Minnesota. “I figured I’d get a job or internship and move away from running,” she remembers. “But then I was so inspired by how I was able to come back, I wanted to see what I could do.”

Stepping into the unknown, she joined Team USA Minnesota, alongside her Gopher teammate Heather Dorniden. “She always had the talent but it took that spark for her to go beyond what she’d done before,” says Grunewald, who himself competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials in the Marathon.

In August, Brooks signed the budding star to their roster. While there were some growing pains, she ran well on the tracks of Europe in the summer of 2010, setting a personal best of 4:12 in the 1500m.

Then, in the fall of 2010, in her first season in the elite ranks, another sizeable hurdle was thrown down in front of her. Cancer again. During a routine checkup for the first cancer, a growth was discovered on her thyroid. Unrelated to the adenoid cystic carcinoma, she was told that once again she’d be in for surgery — this time to remove her thyroid — and radioactive iodine treatments.

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“It was a punch in the gut,” says Grunewald. “It was like, how is this happening again? She went in for a routine checkup and now she needs surgery again.”

The initial shock and frustration made way for hope as it became clear the road back to health wouldn’t be nearly as rocky as the first time around. Two weeks after her surgery, Anderson was already back putting in miles. By February she laced up her spikes for her first race at the Iowa State Classic and then later that month for the U.S. indoor championships.

“Once she steps on that track, nothing surprises me,” says Wilson. “I would never bet against that kid in anything. If I was in war, I would want Gabe and 10 others like her in my foxhole.”

In May, she made waves by lowering her personal best to 4:06:46 at the OXY High Performance Meet, just six months after finishing her last radioactive iodine treatment. Missing the Olympic A-standard by just 1 second in the 1500m, she began to think like a potential Olympian.

“I trained with the intention that I could get on the team with the right set of circumstances, but I knew it would take a perfect season and perfect race,” she says. Heading into the Olympic Trials seeded fifth, she arrived in Eugene with cautious confidence.

Running Down A Dream

Racing rarely serves up perfect conditions. The morning after Anderson’s disqualification following the 1500m semifinals at the Olympic Trials, she still hadn’t received word from the jury of appeals. Her fate was yet again out of her hands. She received encouraging words and support from family, friends, and competitors, all of whom thought the DQ was wrongly given. Then at 12:30 Pacific Time, she got the call that she was reinstated. She would line up on the track with 13 other athletes for the women’s 1500m final.

Grunewald warmed up with her before the race. “We just chatted and tried to keep her heart rate down and talk strategy,” he said.

With her whole family in the stands and her fiancé watching nervously from the athlete warm-up area, the runners took off. The lead-up to that race was far from ideal for Anderson, throwing her off both mentally and emotionally. “I did my best under the circumstances,” she says regarding the disqualification. “I’m not sure there’s any way to prepare for something like that.”

Having gone out at a relatively moderate pace, the three leaders broke from the pack with 500 meters to go. At first Anderson hoped she could catch them, but they closed quickly and she crossed in fourth place behind Morgan Uceny, Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson, in a time of 4:07:38, one spot out of Olympic contention.

Fresh from nearly making the team, Anderson says her approach to running and life is to take one day at a time. “I get nervous seeing the future really far out because I know that, with my health in particular, unplanned things can happen. There is some anxiety there, so it’s better to focus on the short term goals,” she says.

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That mindset worked well for her last summer, as she raced in Belgium and Italy after the Trials, where she lowered her PR to a 4:04:84 for a first-place finish in Lignano, Italy. It also happened to be the fastest time ever run in the distance by a Minnesota woman, faster than local Olympians Carrie Tollefson and Kara Goucher.

Next she headed to Dublin, Ireland to win her section in the 800 meters at the Morton Games, followed by a fourth-place finish at the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City in a personal best of 4:26.5. Among U.S. women, Track & Field News recently ranked her second in the 3000m (8:43.52), third in the mile (4:27.94), and fourth in the 1500m (4:04.84).

Focusing on the track this spring, she hopes to seize the A-standard for the 1500m early in the season and make the World Championship Team competing in Moscow, but the 2016 Olympics are the true goal on the far horizon. “So many people never put themselves fully out there and just dream of what could be,” says Grunewald. “Gabriele just puts everything out there because she knows that no one can ever know what the future holds.”

Running 60-70 miles per week, much of her training will be put in alongside Grunewald, who is in medical school. With a busy rotation schedule, their daily runs serve as important time together as they plan their October wedding.

The small-town Midwestern girl, two-time cancer survivor, and now top-notch elite runner insists she wouldn’t trade her experiences for a smoother path, because she credits the unplanned challenges in life with bringing her around the world and back.

“I have these competing feelings, one is to treat each race like every other race, but there is also this feeling that this whole experience is really awesome,” she says. “Every once in a while I stand on the starting line and look around and take it all in. There is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously and that is definitely a goal of mine to avoid that.

You really can’t enjoy the outcome unless you also enjoy the journey.”