Charting a Course
It wasn’t until this remarkable final collegiate season that it occurred to Anderson she may have a future in the sport beyond the University of Minnesota. “I figured I’d get a job or internship and move away from running,” she remembers. “But then I was so inspired by how I was able to come back, I wanted to see what I could do.”
Stepping into the unknown, she joined Team USA Minnesota, alongside her Gopher teammate Heather Dorniden. “She always had the talent but it took that spark for her to go beyond what she’d done before,” says Grunewald, who himself competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials in the Marathon.
In August, Brooks signed the budding star to their roster. While there were some growing pains, she ran well on the tracks of Europe in the summer of 2010, setting a personal best of 4:12 in the 1500m.
Then, in the fall of 2010, in her first season in the elite ranks, another sizeable hurdle was thrown down in front of her. Cancer again. During a routine checkup for the first cancer, a growth was discovered on her thyroid. Unrelated to the adenoid cystic carcinoma, she was told that once again she’d be in for surgery — this time to remove her thyroid — and radioactive iodine treatments.
“It was a punch in the gut,” says Grunewald. “It was like, how is this happening again? She went in for a routine checkup and now she needs surgery again.”
The initial shock and frustration made way for hope as it became clear the road back to health wouldn’t be nearly as rocky as the first time around. Two weeks after her surgery, Anderson was already back putting in miles. By February she laced up her spikes for her first race at the Iowa State Classic and then later that month for the U.S. indoor championships.
“Once she steps on that track, nothing surprises me,” says Wilson. “I would never bet against that kid in anything. If I was in war, I would want Gabe and 10 others like her in my foxhole.”
In May, she made waves by lowering her personal best to 4:06:46 at the OXY High Performance Meet, just six months after finishing her last radioactive iodine treatment. Missing the Olympic A-standard by just 1 second in the 1500m, she began to think like a potential Olympian.
“I trained with the intention that I could get on the team with the right set of circumstances, but I knew it would take a perfect season and perfect race,” she says. Heading into the Olympic Trials seeded fifth, she arrived in Eugene with cautious confidence.
Running Down A Dream
Racing rarely serves up perfect conditions. The morning after Anderson’s disqualification following the 1500m semifinals at the Olympic Trials, she still hadn’t received word from the jury of appeals. Her fate was yet again out of her hands. She received encouraging words and support from family, friends, and competitors, all of whom thought the DQ was wrongly given. Then at 12:30 Pacific Time, she got the call that she was reinstated. She would line up on the track with 13 other athletes for the women’s 1500m final.
Grunewald warmed up with her before the race. “We just chatted and tried to keep her heart rate down and talk strategy,” he said.
With her whole family in the stands and her fiancé watching nervously from the athlete warm-up area, the runners took off. The lead-up to that race was far from ideal for Anderson, throwing her off both mentally and emotionally. “I did my best under the circumstances,” she says regarding the disqualification. “I’m not sure there’s any way to prepare for something like that.”
Having gone out at a relatively moderate pace, the three leaders broke from the pack with 500 meters to go. At first Anderson hoped she could catch them, but they closed quickly and she crossed in fourth place behind Morgan Uceny, Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson, in a time of 4:07:38, one spot out of Olympic contention.
Fresh from nearly making the team, Anderson says her approach to running and life is to take one day at a time. “I get nervous seeing the future really far out because I know that, with my health in particular, unplanned things can happen. There is some anxiety there, so it’s better to focus on the short term goals,” she says.
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That mindset worked well for her last summer, as she raced in Belgium and Italy after the Trials, where she lowered her PR to a 4:04:84 for a first-place finish in Lignano, Italy. It also happened to be the fastest time ever run in the distance by a Minnesota woman, faster than local Olympians Carrie Tollefson and Kara Goucher.
Next she headed to Dublin, Ireland to win her section in the 800 meters at the Morton Games, followed by a fourth-place finish at the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City in a personal best of 4:26.5. Among U.S. women, Track & Field News recently ranked her second in the 3000m (8:43.52), third in the mile (4:27.94), and fourth in the 1500m (4:04.84).
Focusing on the track this spring, she hopes to seize the A-standard for the 1500m early in the season and make the World Championship Team competing in Moscow, but the 2016 Olympics are the true goal on the far horizon. “So many people never put themselves fully out there and just dream of what could be,” says Grunewald. “Gabriele just puts everything out there because she knows that no one can ever know what the future holds.”
Running 60-70 miles per week, much of her training will be put in alongside Grunewald, who is in medical school. With a busy rotation schedule, their daily runs serve as important time together as they plan their October wedding.
The small-town Midwestern girl, two-time cancer survivor, and now top-notch elite runner insists she wouldn’t trade her experiences for a smoother path, because she credits the unplanned challenges in life with bringing her around the world and back.
“I have these competing feelings, one is to treat each race like every other race, but there is also this feeling that this whole experience is really awesome,” she says. “Every once in a while I stand on the starting line and look around and take it all in. There is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously and that is definitely a goal of mine to avoid that.
You really can’t enjoy the outcome unless you also enjoy the journey.”