The small-town girl from Minnesota is an Olympic contender in the 1,500 meters.
Gabriele Anderson finished her tenth interview in the last month as the two-time cancer survivor who’s trying to make the U.S. Olympic team. By the way, she’s run 4:06.46 for 1500 meters, making her the fifth fastest qualifier at these U.S. Olympic Trials. Isn’t she the tiniest bit peeved that the cancer survivor label gets equal billing with an accomplishment that would be exceptional on its own, one that’s taken years of dedication, talent and hard work?
“That’s my story and I’m OK with it — at least I have one,” she says, laughing over her “morning” 1 p.m. coffee. The 26-year-old Perham, MN native exudes the sunny pragmatism and clear focus of someone in a very good place.
That place is fifth seed in possibly the deepest 1,500 field ever heading into the qualifying round at Hayward Field on Thursday afternoon. Anderson is riding the momentum from a head-turning spring track season in which she set that personal best, winning her heat at the Oxy High Performance Meet in May and becoming a serious contender for a ticket to London.
That’s the part of the story she writes with every organ-melting workout. But there have been some plot twists in her story that she did not author. In 2009, while still running as a Minnesota Gopher, she was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma. After surgery and radiation therapy, she worked her way back to not just running, but competing, setting the University of Minnesota school record for 1500 meters at 4:13. Eighteen months later, she was diagnosed with aggressive thyroid cancer, unrelated to the first. She had surgery to remove the thyroid, followed by a series of treatments, the last radioactive iodine dose endured just six months prior to her amazing performance at the Oxy meet.
“The last few years have been tough,” Anderson said, still smiling. “I try to trust in God’s plan for my life, do my part and not give up on my dreams.”
Those dreams did not always include the Olympics. “I loved running in Perham [population about 3,000]. I was a big fish in a small pond — I learned that quickly when I got to the U of M,” said Anderson. As a student athlete, her life was filled with classes that led to an English/political science double major and then a Master’s in Public Policy, and a nearly year-round racing schedule. The next race, the next season, NCAA finals — those were the furthest points on her horizon.
But emerging from the dark tunnel of cancer, the view was different and wider. The trajectory of her running career continued on past college. Anderson ignored limits and minor obstacles (after cancer, most obstacles turned out to be minor), and pursued running with greater intensity. Right out of school, Brooks signed her on as a sponsored athlete and she joined Team USA Minnesota’s training group of top-notch distance runners.
One week after competing in her last NCAA race, she left for a summer of racing on the European track circuit where she began her professional running career with a personal best of 4:12 in the 1500. Unlike many pro runners, her next step was thyroid surgery and subsequent therapy.
At once devastating and familiar, Anderson fell back on what works for her — family, her fiance and training partner Justin Grunewald, and the rolling country roads and quiet lakes of her home town. “Justin and I disappear a lot to Justin’s parents’ house in Brainerd, maybe drive over to my parents’ in Perham.” While she loves living in the Twin Cities, her parents, her five siblings and the traditions of life “up North” are critical to her well-being.
Another thing that works for her is sleep — 11 to 12 hours a night. “I was a little embarrassed to admit my sleep schedule. It could be perceived as lazy or not committed to the professional runner thing,” she laughed. “But now I own it. It allows me to elevate my training and get the recovery.” Her “morning” run is rarely before noon, with the main workout of the day at 7 or 8 p.m. She was quick to point out supporting science that indicates it’s best to train at the time your races occur, which, on the track, is typically in the evening.
The remainder of 2010 and the spring of 2011 were devoted to recovery and getting in solid, consistent training without the distractions of classes, weekly races or even a job, since she received stipends from Brooks and Team USA Minnesota. “I have never worked so hard,” she said. “I top out at 65 to 70 miles a week, which is not that much more than I did at the U of M, but with much more intensity. We focus on being able to kick off of a slow pace and running hard the whole race.” She’s also working on running for a time rather than racing for place, which was more relevant as a collegiate.
“In professional running, your name is your PR,” said Anderson. “Gabriele Anderson is a 4:12. You can’t get in good races with a 4:12. I went to Europe [again in summer 2011] to set myself up to get in faster races. I really wanted to break 4:10.”
In a whirlwind of racing, she set four personal bests in three events, including a huge drop to 4:06.77 in the 1500 on her last day on the continent — in London, of all places. “At that point, I felt like an Olympic contender.”
Talking about the Olympic Trials, Anderson’s face lit up as she leaned forward, tracing various scenarios and what it will take to not only place in the top three, but also meet the IAAF Olympic standard time of 4:06.00. “I know I’m capable of it, and since there are others who don’t have the time standard, I think it will go fast,” she said eagerly. “I’d rather get eighth and make the standard than third and not have it.”
Yes, there will be a wedding in 2013 (“We haven’t set a date yet,” says Anderson), and down the road perhaps working with other young cancer survivors, but for now, Anderson is going to see how far she can go with running. “That’s the outlook,” she said, still smiling.
About The Author:
Sarah Barker runs and writes in St. Paul, MN.