Gabriele Grunewald (© Ben Blair)
This week athletics lost an icon, with Gabriele Grunewald passing away at the age of 32 after a 10-year battle with cancer.
Her teammates, rivals, colleagues and friends share their memories of Gabe, whose strength and resilience inspired millions and whose legacy will last forever.
Kara Goucher, Athlete
“As a fellow Minnesotan I followed Gabe from college to her professional life and I loved watching her race – seeing her unleash that amazing kick.
“But much more important than my relationship with her was her relationship with the running community – her and Justin’s willingness to share their life with us. When most people would have understandably closed off, they kept sharing.
“For me, her moments of vulnerability stand out. She was a real person, with unimaginable road blocks and setbacks, yet she always chose to move forward. She was very supportive of my fight for clean sport and that meant so much to me.
“She has inspired us all to be relentless, to always choose to move forward. It’s not overstating to say that the world is a better place because of her. She will be dearly missed, but never forgotten.”
Kyle Merber, Athlete
“I first truly met Gabe on a bus ride at the World Relays in 2015 where I was taken simply by her ability to have an enjoyable conversation. Distance runners have this nerdy and shy reputation, but she immediately made me feel like we were best friends and always had that warmth. Gabe had a way of connecting with people and being fully invested in every word shared.
“A week later at the Oxy high performance meet a huge storm rolled through and the meet was cancelled. Gabe, Riley Masters, David Torrence and I grabbed an umbrella and started doing some cool-down laps. We had half the place laughing and the other half yelling at us to get off the track. We kept joking that there’s no reason to worry: ‘The track is rubber!’
“Gabe will be missed, but her memory will continue to inspire all those who witnessed her courage.”
Jeff Morris, Coach at Perham High School
“I don’t know if I’ve ever met or had the privilege of coaching a more resilient person – she was always the kind that wanted to take on the toughest challenges.
“Her senior year, the night before the 800m final, I remember going over the game plan: don’t get boxed in, stay out of trouble and sit and kick. But Gabe had a stubbornness that just goes against the grain sometimes. She didn’t listen and got boxed in the first 200 metres, then after a lap she burst to the front and ran away from the field, daring everyone to try out-kick her.
“She had made up her mind what she was going to do, she was going to be a champion no matter what. And she wasn’t satisfied after winning that title. She wanted to dream bigger and bigger.”
Kellie Wells, Athlete
“My favourite memory of Gabe comes from 2014. We were both living in Minnesota and my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, played for the Vikings. I was getting some physical therapy and I met a guy there who told me his sister ran professionally – her name was Gabe.
“Fast forward a few months and I was healing up from hip surgery, starting my physical therapy and Gabe’s brother was in charge of my program. Gabe and I would come in at the same times and we spent many days rehabbing, healing, and talking.
“She shared some of her experiences with cancer with me and it truly changed my perspective on where I was in my recovery process. I was super down and in a dark place and she talked about real life and death situations, all the while encouraging me to not only stop feeling bad about my hip’s progress but to also look at life differently.
“She was always smiling, always laughing and happy even when she spoke on circumstances that were not ideal.”
Nick Willis, Athlete
“I will always remember her incredible singing voice – one night a group of us runners went to do karaoke in New York after the Fifth Avenue Mile and she was a very, very talented singer.
“Every memory I have of Gabe is her with this larger-than-life smile. She carried an aura of joy around with her, and it was contagious for all who crossed her path.”
Sarah Hopkins, Head Coach, University of Minnesota Women’s Cross Country
“The way Gabe raced was to always be the last one to throw the punch and pull a rabbit out of her hat so, as much as we knew this was coming, I was waiting for the rabbit to come out of the hat just because of who Gabe was.
“In terms of our team here, a couple years ago we started using the "Brave Like Gabe" mantra and we incorporated the perspective that running is great and we want to be good at it, but when you run for something bigger than yourself, that's when really special things happen.
“When Gabe first arrived on campus she didn't know if she belonged here, but she not only belonged, she became one of the best athletes we've ever had. Gabe’s story without the cancer, who she was an athlete and what she accomplished, is amazing. That's how she tried to look at it, too, not letting cancer define her career. There's no better representative of our program. Everything Gabe was is everything that we hope our athletes are – she had it all in one package.”
Molly Huddle, Athlete
“I mostly know Gabe the way other pros do: the odd shared warm-up and cool-down, bus rides, meals and post-race high-fives at meets. She was known for having a furious kick and making openings happen – don’t get in her way because she had a keen sense of urgency unlike anyone else.
“She was part of the group of athletes I liked to be around at races, where we vibrated on the same ambitious but respectful friend-runner wavelength and bond over that shared mindset and lifestyle – except Gabe also had this huge other reality with her cancer timeline.
“We raced 3K in London one season (she flew by me at the end) and she paced two 5000s I was in: in one of them no one went with us so it was just me and Gabe and his huge gap and we thought “this is strange, why are they letting us go?”, but then after a few laps I hoped maybe I could win my first Diamond League. When Gabe’s pacing was done she was cheering me on the last few laps and I remember thinking, I hope I can pull this off but I also don’t want to let her down. (Spoiler: I lost)
“I heard her speak once at a lunch on NYC marathon weekend and she was awe-inspiring – the way she could reach people, shed no tears and deliver a beautifully phrased message from a powerful place. I tried to tell her afterward how amazing it was – she was probably kind of uncomfortable with that but she was kind, she smiled and we hugged. It was the last time I got to talk to Gabe in person. I didn’t get to hang out with her as often as the 1500 ladies but I do feel like she was a sister-in-sport – an amazing athlete and woman.”
Stephanie Bruce, Athlete
“The thing that stays with me about Gabe is that, despite all the doctor appointments and cancer treatments she went through, she never let them get in the way of meeting friends or her running. When I was in New York in September 2017 to preview the marathon course she was getting treatments in the city at Sloan Kettering, the same place my parents were treated for their cancer.
“We were arranging to meet for lunch shortly after she had a biopsy and even though she was going through all that, she was asking what part of town would suit me best to meet. That’s the kind of person she was – always thinking of others. She lived her life with passion, positivity and perseverance.”
Casimir Loxsom, Athlete
“My favourite track meet was the Ponce Grand Prix in 2014 and when I look back at who was there it’s easy to see why: Gabe and her husband Justin, along with so many other great friends in the sport.
“Gabe won the 3K that day and that night, we all stayed up late and had a party because we were together on a beautiful island with our track family. David Torrence walked two miles to get a case of beer for everyone, while Gabe spent most of the night dancing and laughing. When Aisha Praught-Leer was inevitably too fun and won Gabe’s attention, Justin and I caught up about how he tried to steal me to Minnesota on my Penn State recruiting trip. We spent the night by the pool and the next morning, we left for home tired but refreshed from celebrating life.
“My memory of Gabe was that she was loving and efficient. She had a sense of urgency and she loved being alive. She dished out tough love when she needed to, but more than anything, she always made sure you knew that she cared about you.”
David Bracetty, Director of Gabe
“In 2017 Gabe’s agent, Paul Doyle, asked me if I wanted to hop on a plane at short notice and follow Gabe over several cities to capture her story for a documentary. I knew I would regret it if I said no, and it turned out to be the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on.
“If there’s one memory that stands out from Gabe it was her interacting with another athletes. An athlete would approach her to talk about the race and how they didn’t run as well as they wanted. It was something that seemed so trivial in comparison to what Gabe was going through, but she was sincerely and authentically empathetic to what they were talking about.
“I remembered being blown away, thinking, 'This woman is currently racing with an incurable form of cancer; every other issue in my mind didn’t matter.' But she cared so much and embodied the drive and spirit of a runner hell-bent at achieving their goal, whatever the cost.
“The documentary, which was funded by her agent and Brooks, is 26 minutes’ long but only shows part of the story that season. We also flew to a meet in Nashville and had a chance to meet with her doctor at Sloan Kettering. Because of the turnaround they didn’t make the cut but I hope to share them eventually with everyone as they really complete the story.
“I’m forever changed having spent the days we did creating that documentary together. She would discuss such serious and dire topics without a flinch. It’s like she would talk about scaling Mount Everest with no support or oxygen as if it wasn’t a big deal. It made everyone around her see her as a hero the she was... that she still is.”
Carrie Tollefson, Athlete
“Gabe was like a little sister. I would watch her train at the University of Minnesota before my workouts and she would often ask me about mine. She was a counselor at my running camp and we all adored how she interacted with kids.
“We enjoyed our time on my YouTube channel and podcast, C Tolle Run, more than we should have as the interviews always went over time – we laughed and hugged hard every time we saw each other.
“My favourite memory was when we were doing a cooking show and she was making her favourite meal at the time: steak salad. We got the pan so hot that the smoke from the steak almost set off the fire alarm in my parents’ condo and we had to fake our way through chewing hard-as-rock steak, to finish the episode while trying not to choke and wet our pants from laughing.
“I loved her, I miss her, and I promise to keep her legacy alive with so many of her friends. Thanks for making me laugh, Gabe. It’s been hard between the tears.”
Ben Blair, Photographer
“Before the 2016 Olympic Trials, I had the opportunity to shoot some photos of Gabe for Brooks Running. We had a blast that day. I wanted to make the shoot unique and fun, so I took Gabe to a skate park in Portland and asked her to run up the ramp. Without blinking, she looked at the ramp and said “Okay, let’s do it” and attacked it in her trademark character. That was Gabe: up for it, up for life.
“She showed us all how to handle life’s biggest challenges, what it means to be human and vulnerable and real. She showed us how to take the worst possible news, and then stare it right back in the face.
“Let me be clear, Gabe did not lose. And cancer did not win. Cancer had to come back four times to get Gabe. That’s not winning. That’s one for four. She whooped cancer’s ass three times.
“She showed us what it means to be brave and by showing, she inspired. In my own life, I’m always going to hold on to this quote from Gabe: 'It’s okay to struggle. It’s not okay to give up.'”
You can donate to the Brave Like Gabe Foundation and support cancer research here: https://bravelikegabe.org/
Photography: Ben Blair & Getty Images