Minnesota runner Gabriele Grunewald was surrounded by family and friends at home in her final moments of life. The 32-year-old died Tuesday after complications of cancer found in her liver in 2017, according to her husband.
Grunewald, a professional distance runner, had three previous bouts of cancer. The Perham, Minn. native drew widespread admiration in running circles for persevering in her career despite health setbacks.
In her senior year at the University of Minnesota, Grunewald placed second in the 1,500 meter. As a professional runner, she won her first national title in the 3,000-meter at the U.S. Indoor National Championships in 2014. She also placed 4th in the 2012 USA Olympic Trials.
Dennis Barker, an author and running coach who worked with Grunewald, described her as "one of the best in the world." But she connected with everyday runners.
"Running, in particular, no matter if you're fast or slow, you always have those good days and bad days. And there's always struggles, even if you're a successful athlete," Barker said. "The common runner could relate to her really well, and she was very approachable."
Grunewald was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma at the age of 22, while running for the University of Minnesota's cross country and track and field teams. Although that tumor was removed, doctors discovered thyroid cancer the following year. Cancer returned in 2016 and 2017.
"Her success was very public," Barker said. "And likewise then, her struggle became very public."
Grunewald founded the foundation Brave Like Gabe to raise money for rare cancer research.
As recently as this winter, Grunewald was still working out, with hopes of returning to elite competition.
"I would watch her run and I would think, 'How can someone so sick run so fast?'" Barker said. "But she continued to do that until she just was not able anymore."
Grunewald's husband Justin updated followers about her status on Instagram. In a post this week, he said Gabriele's condition worsened, and they had decided to move her to comfort care. Thousands of people posted comments in support.
A southern California runner wrote that everyone has a story but not everyone has Grunewald's courage and strength. "So many hearts are aching for a soul that has changed so many lives and for a person that [has] given so much hope to the world despite how unforgiving life may be."
On Tuesday, Justin Grunewald posted another update: "As the seconds between Gabriele's breaths start to lengthen I'm holding her hands so tight and am so scared for the trail ahead, but I know she will always be by my and everyone's side helping us to be brave and remain hopeful on our journey when times get hard."
Her coach said Grunewald worked hard to raise awareness of rare cancers and running, but she may have been proudest of her marriage.
"A lot of times, it was just us three on the track, and they always came to the track walking real close together and whispering," Barker said. "I think people are affected by it a little bit more, because it's a love story, too."
At 7:52 I said "I can't wait until I get to see you again" to my hero, my best friend, my inspiration, my wife. @gigrunewald I always felt like the Robin to your Batman and I know I will never be able to fill this gaping hole in my heart or fill the shoes you have left behind. Your family loves you dearly as do your friends. When @chipgaines made the final push in his #chipinchallenge I could feel your happiness building and could also see that this made you ready to head up to heaven. Chip thanks for helping her to go up so peacefully with no suffering. To everyone else from all ends of the earth, Gabriele heard your messages and was so deeply moved. She wants you to stay brave and keep all the hope in the world. Thanks for helping keep her brave in her time of need 😪🙏🏻 #keeprunningonhope #bravelikegabe 📸 @pixelcrave 📷 @kohjiro_kinno
A post shared by Justin Grunewald (@justingrunewald1) on Jun 11, 2019 at 6:35pm PDT