Athletes reflect on the life of Gabriele Grunewald
Dana Giordano had plenty of things to think about as she sped through the finish line, but her scar was not one of them.
She needed to catch her breath. She had just run a mile against a group of professional runners. She also needed to watch the standing water at the end of the elevated track on the corner of Boylston and Clarendon streets. Throughout the Adidas Boost Boston Games, it almost turned into a slip-and-slide for many runners as rain fell on Sunday. The nine-inch vertical scar on her stomach, however, was not among her worries.
She has Gabriele Grunewald to thank.
Grunewald, known by many in the running world as Gabe, ran with her own scar on her abdomen, a result of surgical treatment for adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer. The courage to run without concern for the visible scar inspired Giordano, whose own scar is a result of surgery from more than a decade ago to remove an ovarian tumor.
“She is not her scar,” Giordano recalled thinking. “She is Gabe, and she is an athlete, and she is a strong woman. That’s what I want to be.”
Grunewald’s willingness to not let her scar define her as a professional runner, in addition to the vulnerability she displayed through her 10-year public bout with cancer, left not only an impact on Giordano but also on the running world. It’s why Grunewald’s death at the age of 32 on Tuesday continued to remain on the forefront of the minds of many runners in Boston on Sunday.
Her impact took on many different forms.
Nikki Hiltz, who won the women’s mile, met Grunewald only once. She was a junior in college when Grunewald yelled from the crowd, wishing Hiltz good luck. Hiltz said it meant a lot to have one of her running idols support her. Grunewald’s true impact, however, came through the power of vulnerability.
Hiltz saw the vulnerability Grunewald displayed by putting her battle with cancer out in the public while also being willing to run at less than full strength. The vulnerability Hiltz took away played a part, she said, in helping Hiltz decide to come out publicly as gay.
“She showed me the power in being vulnerable and how many lives you can touch,” Hiltz said. “Part of her story empowered me. It’s nowhere near the comparison, but the power of vulnerability to be who I am, and maybe I will inspire others.”
In addition to vulnerability, Grunewald also inspired other runners through her grit. Her continuing to run as a professional while dealing with hospital visits, treatments, and everything else that came with the cancer left a big impression on Erik Sowinski.
Sowinski, who said he will miss Grunewald’s smile, raced Sunday after a rigorous 48 hours that he started by competing in Germany. It’s the kind of situation that could warrant some grumbling, but Sowinski can’t bring himself to complain when he thinks of what Grunewald went through to run.
“Everyone is going through stuff, but she was never one to let anything hold her back,” Sowinski said.
Grunewald was also willing to provide a listening ear to anyone who needed one.
New Zealand runner Nick Willis remains grateful to Grunewald for the empathy she displayed when they once discussed the loss of Willis’s mother. She died from cancer when he was a child.
Willis’s favorite Grunewald memory, however, comes from a karaoke bar in New York City.
“We were all having a go, and we thought we were all hot stuff,” Willis said. “But we couldn’t sing. We were just having fun. Then suddenly, this voice just lifts up the whole room. I turn around, and it’s Gabe.”
The way in which Grunewald tried to make the most of each day left an impact on many of the athletes who ran on Sunday, even those who had never met her.
Noah Lyles watched Grunewald live each day to the fullest via Instagram, often liking her photos and commenting to offer support.
“It shows you can have a story that touches so many people even though you have never even met them,” Lyles said.
Great Britain long jumper Jazmin Sawyers falls into that category. She didn’t know much about Grunewald until the days leading up to Grunewald’s death; many others in Great Britain learned of Grunewald because the news of Grunewald’s death was broadcast all over BBC News, Sawyers said. Many outside of the sport have sent Sawyers messages, asking if she knew Grunewald.
“I cannot believe one person has managed to have an impact on so many people,” Sawyers said. “I don’t think the running community will ever forget her and the legacy she has left.”