It was 4 years ago, during a search of Olympic hopefuls with ties to the area, when I first learned about Gabrielle Grunewald.
As a sport, running is full of inspirational stories, from amateurs with an unbreakable spirit to professional runners who inspire fans. And the most inspiring are humble harriers who genuinely love the sport and pursue their dreams, willing to push through barriers and refuse to back down despite setbacks.
But Gabriele is not your ordinary inspirational story. She is an Olympic hopeful — and will run for a spot on the U.S. team on Sunday. At age 30, she is a two-time cancer survivor. She is both unbreakable and inspiring.
A 800-meter state high school champion from Perham, Minn., she walked on as a runner at the University of Minnesota, going from a perennial high school powerhouse to a nationally renowned collegiate program.
She suffered a stress fracture and individual success eluded her. As a fifth-year senior and grad student, doctors diagnosed Gabriele with cancer in 2009 — one day before running the fifth fastest 1500 meter in school history.
Treatment forced an early end to her season, but she bounced back — later returning to break the school’s 1500 meter record, took second in the NCAA championship and earned All-American honors. She took seventh at the USA Outdoor Track and Field championships and signed with Brooks Running.
Months later she received a second cancer diagnosis.
Again, Gabriele battled back, and returned to the track. In 2012, she finished fourth in the 1500 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Two years later she won the 3000 meters indoors national title.
“I hope I can inspire people, because that is why I run,” she said in an interview after the race. She also talked to former Olympian and fellow Minnesotan Carrie Tollefson about the race.
At this year’s Olympic Trials, Gabrielle qualified to run both the 5000 and 1500. Many expected her to compete for the U.S. team in the 5000, and likely opt out of the shorter race.
A disappointing 5000 race, though, forced Gabriele to toe the line in the 1500, just two hours after failing to advance in the longer race.
That gutty performance in the first round helped her advance to the semifinals, where Gabriele sprinted down the final straight away to nab a spot in Sunday’s final.
It’s a loaded field, but I know who I’ll be cheering for.