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Gabriele Grunewald, standout runner from Perham, passes away at 32

Gabriele (Anderson) Grunewald is shown here competing in the women’s 5,000 meters first-round heats at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. James Lang / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Gabriele (Anderson) Grunewald, a 2004 Perham High School graduate and one of the country’s top middle-distance runners, died at her home in Minneapolis on Tuesday, June 11, her father confirmed.

Grunewald was 32.

"She did go to heaven just before 8 tonight," Kim Anderson, Gabriele's father, wrote in a text message.

Grunewald was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2009 during her running career with the Minnesota Gophers. She started to run professionally in 2010.

Sunday, June 9, Justin Grunewald, Gabriele's husband, wrote on his Instagram account that Gabriele had moved into comfort care. Monday, June 10, Justin posted that Gabriele was at their home.

"We got her home to our comfy couch and she is resting peacefully and breathing easy surrounded by her best friends and family," Justin wrote Monday.

Jeff Morris, the cross country coach and distance coach for the track and field team at Perham High School, coached Grunewald for her final two years of high school, including her senior year when she won her only high school individual state title in the 800 meters. It was the first state title Morris coached.

"Honestly I don’t know if I have ever met or had the privilege of coaching a more resilient person," Morris said. "Gabe has always been the kind of person that wanted to take on the toughest challenges."

Brady Speicher, a 2013 Perham graduate and standout runner at both Perham and Minnesota State Moorhead, has a signed spike that Grunewald brought when she came to speak to Perham runners when he was in high school. He has that spike in his classroom in Battle Lake, Minn., where he coaches cross country and track and field. When people ask him about the spike he tells them it's a long story.

But he always tells the story. He tells students, especially his runners, about the motivation Grunewald contributed. Speicher tells them how a person can go around with the worst circumstances and still find light.

"She was the perfect role model," Speicher said. "She was never really focused on herself, although she could've been. She was always about doing something bigger than herself.

"Now, when someone asks me about the spike, it'll be a good life lesson on how to live your life."

She was one of the nation’s most adored track and field athletes, openly sharing her life with cancer in recent years with the hope that her transparency would inspire others to pursue their goals even amid personal struggles. With the help of friends, Grunewald started a foundation called Brave Like Gabe in 2018 to raise funds and awareness for rare cancer research, as well as empower cancer survivors through physical activity.

When adenoid cystic carcinoma first presented in Grunewald’s salivary gland in 2009, she was a senior competing for the University of Minnesota. After discovering a lump under her left ear, she was diagnosed with the form of cancer that about 1,200 people are afflicted with each year. There is no cure.

When she got the news via a phone call from her doctor, Grunewald was at a track meet at Arizona State University. But she didn’t let it get in the way of her plans, clocking a then-personal best in the 1500 meters the following day. She went on to have surgery and radiation, but returned to the team the next season, earning All-America honors and runner-up at the NCAA championships.

In 2010, cancer returned in an unrelated form, this time in her thyroid. It was cured in 2011 through surgery and radioactive iodine treatments. Grunewald jogged to and from her treatments and enjoyed a mostly uninterrupted few years of training after that.

Her athletic achievements at the University of Minnesota led to a post-collegiate contract with Brooks and a membership with Team USA Minnesota, where she was coached through much of her career by Dennis Barker. She placed fourth in 4:07.38 at the 2012 Olympic Trials, just missing a chance to compete at the London Games.

In 2013 at a competition in Monaco, Grunewald clocked her lifetime 1500-meter best of 4:01.48. And by the 2014 U.S.A. Track & Field Indoor Championships, she was healthy and in peak performance. She won a national title in the 3,000 meters, qualifying to compete for Team USA at the world championships in Poland, where she placed 10th.

Grunewald entered the 2016 Olympic Trials focused on the 5,000 meters, but when she failed to advance to the finals, she entered the 1500 meters an hour later, in a last effort to make the team. She advanced through the rounds, but finished the final in 12th in 4:18.73. After taking some time off to recover and reevaluate her goals, she decided to come back to training to take another shot at the Olympics in 2020.

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