Standing in the mixed zone in the Ergo Arena, Gabriele Grunewald reflected with satisfaction on having made it through the first round of the women’s 3000m on the opening morning of the IAAF World Indoor Championships on Friday (7) – then looked ahead to the challenge of facing Genzebe Dibaba in Sunday’s final.
With due respect to the Ethiopian phenomenon who has swept through the world record books in her trailblazing 2014 indoor season, Grunewald has taken on a more formidable opponent.
In fact, the 27-year-old from Minneapolis, Minnesota, has done so twice over. And, happily, she has lived to not only tell the tale but to launch an impressive international running career.
It was back in April 2009 that Grunewald had her first confrontation with cancer.
She was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma of the salivary gland, and underwent surgery to remove the gland and the tumour. She also had some surrounding neck dissection to remove local lymph nodes in the area close to the facial nerve.
Then, in October 2011, the former Gabrielle Anderson was diagnosed with thyroid gland cancer. She had a thyroidectomy and partial dissection of the left side of her neck.
The scars were clear to see in Sopot as she stopped to talk, proudly wearing her bright red USA vest.
“I’m fortunate that I’m in really good health right now,” reflected the 2014 US champion over 15 laps of the track. “For me, it’s just about taking advantage of these awesome experiences.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve taken through all of my health issues: just to really savour these experiences. This is my first World Championships, indoors or outdoors. I hope there will be many more to come, but you never know. So I’m here just trying to relish the moment and run my best.”
Naturally, Grunewald’s life-threatening experiences have given her a keen sense of perspective.
She has long since brushed aside the controversy that surrounded her disqualification, and subsequent reinstatement, from the 3000m final at the US Indoor Championships, which she won in Albuquerque last month. “That got straightened out soon after,” she said.
Similarly, Grunewald was not beating herself up about having had to rely on a non-automatic qualifying spot in heat two today, after losing touch with the lead pack, headed by two-time 1500m world champion Maryam Yusuf Jamal of Bahrain.
“The original plan was to get an automatic spot but when I made a move I couldn’t get through,” she said. “I knew from the times run in the first heat that I could qualify as a fastest loser.
“I’m okay with that. I think I’ll be five seconds fresher on Sunday, and I’ll need that because there are some superb athletes in there.
“It’ll be an honour to run against Genzebe. I just want to run my own race and do the best that I can.”
Last summer, Grunewald featured as a pacemaker on the IAAF Diamond League circuit. This winter, with a national indoor title and a place in a World Indoor Championships final, she has started to make a name in her own right.
“After I went through cancer, I tried to prioritise things in my life and focus on becoming as good of a runner as I could be,” Grunewald said. “Before that, I was just a decent collegiate runner. I was nowhere near the elite level I’m at now.
“It’s just awesome being here in Sopot, taking in the great history of this area of Poland, and representing my country on the world stage.”
Simon Turnbull for the IAAF