Gabriele Anderson Continues Beating The Odds

Anderson competing in the 1,500m at last summer's Olympic Trials. Photo:

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.

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