DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Justin Grunewald carries a lock of her hair with him as a remembrance. He has countless photos of her on his phone, along with rich stories from so many.
He feels closest to his late wife, Gabriele — “Gabe” to everyone — at random moments: On a mountain. Watching a sunset. Hearing a song. During a long run.
“I know she’s always close,” Justin wrote in an email. “It keeps me going.”
Two years ago, Gabe ran the 1500m at USATF Outdoor Championships in between rounds of cancer treatment. On June 11, Gabe lost her battle with cancer at her home in Minneapolis — an inspiring fight that connected an entire running community. She was 32.
A tribute to her is planned this week at nationals.
“It’s not hard to find her everywhere,” said Justin, who is hoping to make it to Des Moines for the event.
Gabe was a popular figure — for her competitiveness, courage and positive attitude even in the midst of her illness. That’s why shortly after her death, world steeplechase champion Emma Coburn wrote “Brave Like Gabe” on her bib number before a race.
That’s why in Minnesota there was a “Brave Like Gabe” run on June 25 — her birthday — with a proclamation marking the day as “Gabe Day.” That’s why there were so many messages posted on social media.
“Gabe was a fountain of joy, friendship, hope, laughter, and inspiration,” decorated distance runner Shalane Flanagan said on Instagram. “The harsh reality she faced did not dim her spirit, but seemed to ignite her love of life.”
Gabe was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma — a rare form of cancer in the saliva glands — in 2009 while running for the University of Minnesota. Following surgery and radiation therapy, she went on to finish second in the 1500m at the 2010 NCAA Championships.
She kept on running through three more bouts with the disease, building a career as a professional athlete and U.S. champion while enduring surgeries, radiation treatments, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
Never one to let anything slow her down, she postponed another round of treatment for cancer that had spread to her liver to compete at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships.
Just to feel like a competitor one final time.
She didn’t advance out of the first round of the 1500m that day. It didn’t matter. The real story was her smile .
“I want her legacy to be a legacy of someone who persevered and continues to persevere,” said Justin, whose wife was the U.S. indoor 3000m champion in 2014. “She is the bravest person I’ve ever met, and I think she made the majority of the people she touched more brave, including me.”
Justin said his wife’s main objective after her diagnosis was to make sure people with cancer had even better treatment options. Her foundation, Brave Like Gabe , was started to raise awareness and benefit research into rare forms of cancer. On her website, she encouraged others who were fighting cancer or adversity to share their stories under the hashtag MyBraveStory.
“I heard all the stories of people she wrote back or reached out to lift them up when they needed it,” said Justin, who met Gabe while at Minnesota. “She connected a lot of people that don’t care about track to track and field.”
Justin has posted heartfelt updates and photos on his Instagram account:
— On June 11 a picture of the couple on a trail with the caption: “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.”
— Later on June 11, a photo running into a bright sun : “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.”
— On July 13, an image of them running on the streets : “Last night I prayed I could hold (Gabe’s) hand. I woke up in the morning holding her hand and was able to give her a kiss. Although it was a dream, it was so welcome and comforting.”
Justin traveled to Europe to think — about her, about everything. He went to London to watch their favorite band , “The National,” and ran a mountain race in Austria.
“The more I think of her and remember her, she was perfect,” Justin said. “She was selfless. She cared about everyone, and she really wants everyone to face whatever they have to face with bravery and hope — no matter the odds.”
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