Gabriele Anderson has spent much of her life on the run -- constantly working under the assumption there is always another race to train for. But as the former University of Minnesota two-sport athlete makes a run at the U.S. Olympic team, Anderson no longer takes such competitive luxuries for granted.
Life has seen to that.
There may have been a time when Anderson would have considered herself too big of a long shot to make her way to London as one of the world's elite distance runners. She competes in what's arguably the most competitive event in U.S. Track and Field, part of a talented collection of Americans vying for three spots in the women's 1,500-meter run at this summer's Olympic Games.
But the fear and doubt that was part of Anderson's competitive make-up has been wiped away. Gone are the moments of uncertainty and the questions about whether the former NCAA runner-up has what it takes to be an Olympian.
Anderson is now much more apt to believe in herself, having endured obstacles had never encountered until her life changed three years ago.
"I don't think I would have ever predicted I would have come this far in my running since having cancer twice," Anderson says. "On my best days, I was really hoping to come back to heath and return to running and try and see what I had on the track."
"I never thought I would make it to this point."
Yet, here Anderson is, happy, healthy and fit, ready to run the race of her life at next month's Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.
While stories of sacrifice have long been part of the Olympic landscape, Anderson's story is unique in its own right.
Not because she's fought cancer and won, but because she's done it twice.
The lump on the side of Gabriele Anderson's neck was small, almost to the point of being unnoticeable.
Located right below her left ear, where her jawline ended, the lump was more a nuisance than anything worth worrying about.
Anderson was living in a basement in the spring of 2009, and she figured the lump was nothing more than an inflamed lymph node somehow related to her allergies.
Anderson never concerned herself with the abnormality that was painful to the touch but nothing, she figured at the time, to worry about.
She was 22.
Cancer wasn't on her radar and it had never been an issue with her family. But, almost ironically, it would quickly creep into her life without warning.
She had chosen to skip an annual spring break trip, giving Anderson the chance to spend time with her family in Perham, Minn., a small town of less than 3,000 residents nestled three hours north of the Twin Cities.
During the 179-mile drive home from Minneapolis, Anderson's phone rang. It was her father calling with alarming news.
Doctors had discovered a tumor on Gabriele's mother, Laura Anderson's ovary. They feared it was cancerous.
What was to have been a care-free visit home quickly became one filled with pain and uncertainty.
In the weeks that followed, Gabriele accompanied Laura to doctor's appointments in Minneapolis. Laura underwent a battery of tests before having a complete hysterectomy done in an attempt to rid her body of the mass doctors had detected.
The tumor, doctors found, turned out not to be cancerous.
Relief overcame Gabriele, who figured the worst was over.
Turns out, it was just beginning.
There was the still the matter of the small lump on the side of Anderson's neck. Having ignored it long enough, Anderson visited a ear, nose and throat specialist to have the growth investigated.
Anderson continued to insist nothing was seriously wrong.
She traveled with her teammates to Arizona State, where she'd make her debut in the 1,500-meter run. The day before her race, Anderson sat in a hotel lobby in Phoenix, when her cell phone again rang.
Again, there was news.
Her doctor informed her she had found Adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer on her parotid gland. She would have to undergo surgery in the next week and face radiation treatments soon after.
"Obviously, your head goes to very scary places when you first hear that," Anderson says.
She immediately Googled the rare cancer and discovered doctors and researchers knew little about it. She phoned her mother before telling her coach and her teammates.
For Laura Anderson, who had only recently dealt with her own cancer scare, her daughter's diagnosis was overwhelming.
During her mother's ordeal, Gabriele had been the strong one; remaining optimistic everything would be OK. Now dealing with cancer first-hand, Anderson remained hopeful, mapping out what her treatment would involve and reserving judgment of what the future held.
The news hit Anderson's mother hard.
"It's just such a devastating prognosis," says Laura Anderson, who still has difficulty discussing her daughter's illness without becoming emotional. "It really took a toll and it really wiped her out.
"It was very upsetting."
Telling people made the diagnosis feel real -- even if it didn't seem real to her at the time. She did her best to remain optimistic, but Anderson also understood the severity of her condition.
"You're going into it, and you're 22 years old and you're thinking about getting married and having a family," Anderson says. "Running becomes this small, little thing on the side.
"You're always thinking of the next meet, the next race, the next year. When I got diagnosed with cancer, I was like, 'There may not always be a next year. That was one of the first times in my life I had that thought and it was real to me."
The next day, Anderson ran at Arizona State, finishing second.
She wondered when she'd run again.
Six days later, Anderson underwent surgery. Within six weeks, she began radiation treatments that lasted from the end of May through July.
Between the treatments and the serious neck dissection surgery that Anderson's fiancé and training partner, Justin Grunewald, describes as "something I wouldn't wish on anyone."
Somehow, in the midst of the difficulty eating, the taste changes and a burning sensation Grunewald equates to "having a severe sunburn on your neck for a month," Anderson managed to persevere.
She went through the normal phases and denial and shock before focusing her attention on her recovery.
The process was difficult and transformational, putting Anderson's life and running career into perspective.
"It really makes you set your goals and you really don't mess around with anything that's not important to you," Grunewald says. "Obviously, running was important to her."
By August, she was running again, plotting a comeback that would require her to obtain a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA.
She trained as much as her body allowed her to, traveling with Minnesota's women's cross country team. She assumed the role of assistant coach, using her teammates for support while slowly moving closer to returning to the track, a place that always had made her feel normal.
During the indoor season, Anderson won her first race back, claiming a 3,000-meter indoor event in Minneapolis. She then set a new personal best in the mile soon after at the Iowa State Classic, shattering her previous personal record in the event by four seconds.
"That's when I knew maybe something special was going to happen," Anderson says.
Anderson was granted another year of eligibility, allowing herself to finish out her collegiate running career on her terms. The 2012 Games weren't on her radar, as she remained focus on spending time with her teammates, appreciating running perhaps like never before.
She savored every moment with her teammates before finishing as the runner-up at the NCAA championships in the 1,500.
Slowly, she began to set her sights higher.
Following the NCAA championships in June 2010, Anderson went to Europe and raced there, preparing for a professional running career. She signed on with Brooks, joined a post-collegiate running group with Team USA Minnesota, beginning on a road to establish herself as one of the nation's top distance runners.
Doctors, meanwhile, had spotted something on one of Anderson's scans that concerned them.
Again, she put it off, not thinking -- like her doctors -- that anything serious was happening with her health. Months after doctors had first spotted the abnormality, Anderson had a biopsy performed.
"I think she was just in shock," Laura Anderson says. "That just came from a place she didn't even consider possible. I think the double-whammy just knocked the wind out of her."
Doctors diagnosed Anderson with an aggressive thyroid cancer that was complexly unrelated to the cancer they had discovered in her neck 18 months before.
The news again left Anderson floored.
"I had thought, here I've come so far in the last year and a half -- had gone through surgery -- all the radiation therapy and returned to running and had such a great season," Anderson says. "I felt completely blindsided. It felt like I was starting all over again."
Unlike her first bout with cancer when coaches and teammates at Minnesota had surrounded her, Anderson suddenly felt alone.
If there was a silver lining, it was that unlike her first diagnosis, Anderson's long-term outlook was much less daunting. Her immediate future was much more familiar, giving Anderson hope that if she had overcome cancer once, she could certainly do it again.
Anderson had her thyroid removed and had an additional neck surgery. This past winter, she underwent radioactive iodine therapy to get rid of any remaining thyroid cancer.
She pressed forward with her training; running with a new attitude that those who train with her on a regular basis believe didn't exist before she was diagnosed with cancer.
"She really sees her running as something special and an opportunity to really see what she said do," says Team USA Minnesota coach Dennis Barker. "She doesn't set any limits on herself -- I think the cancer has taken some of those limits off.
"But I think she sees it as being special because it could have turned out a different way where she wouldn't be there. The fact she is out there, I think she wants to take advantage of every minute she has out there."
Like Barker, Laura Anderson sees a notices a difference in her daughter. Gabriele is more contemplative, taking little for granted while making the most of each new day and each opportunity. Laura marvels at how positive of an outlook Gabriele approaches life and her running with -- appreciative of what she has and the journey that has brought her to London's doorstep.
"I think she's more grateful of the little things," Laura Anderson says. "She still gets angry but I think she has a sharper awareness of the things that matter and the things that don't."
Anderson, now 25, is running on a clean bill of health. If her final season at Minnesota had been considered a fresh start of sorts, her run at the Olympics represents another journey.
She understands she may not be mentioned in the same breath as some of her fellow competitors in the 1,500. She realizes there is no guarantees that all of her training efforts will pay off at next month's Olympic Trials and that the road she must follow to London may be an uphill climb.
The women's 1,500 field is among the toughest in the sport, including the world's current top performer Morgan Uceny and defending world champion Jenny Simpson.
The top three finishers at the Olympic Trials will make the U.S. team, creating a challenging task for Anderson, whose time currently ranks fifth in the country.
But after everything she's endured over the past three years, she can't turn her back on reaching what's still considered to be the highest pinnacle of competition among her fellow track and field competitive counterparts.
She carefully studies her competition, wanting to be fully prepared for what awaits her once she arrives in Oregon.
Running, once something to be taken for granted, has provided the mental therapy she has needed through her two bouts with cancer. During a period of life that's been more roller coaster than smooth sailing, it has been her time on the track -- along with her support system -- that has seen her through.
She counts herself among the ranks of cancer survivors, but no longer feels encumbered by the disease -- choosing to move on from her two diagnoses.
"I think (cancer) is always sort of there under the surface, but I think she has a really burning desire to show what she can do," Barker says. "She wants people to focus on the fact that she won the Trials -- not on the fact she did it recovering from cancer."
Outside of the scar that runs across her neck, all signs that Anderson ever dealt with cancer are non-existent.
In some respects, Anderson still feels like the "20-something-year-old woman who is still figuring things out." But on the other end of the spectrum, she feels like having fought through the trials and tribulations that cancer often brings, she is battle-tested, prepared for anything life -- both on the track and off -- has to throw at her.
And deep down, she knows she is better off for having gone through it all.
"Previous to cancer, even in running, as an athlete, as a woman, you're kind of doubting yourself -- can I do this?" Anderson says. "After I had cancer, I felt like I want to find out what I'm made of and if I fall short, that's OK, but I'm going to quit making excuses for myself and selling myself short.
"After cancer, I wasn't afraid to fail any more because I knew it would be worth it to find out. One day, this journey is going to end and I would have wanted to know how far I could have taken it."
At times, Anderson feels like her battle through cancer has come to define her rather than the running talents that brought her threw the qualifying stages for the Olympic Trials.
She has made peace with all of that and will accept what comes next month in Oregon, knowing bigger and better things await her. She continues to be her own fan, running with the confidence that when the London Games open later this summer, she will be there to experience it.
It's a road many like her will travel -- one that she chooses to run not alone, but with a pack of other hopefuls carrying the same dream.
She just had to overcome cancer -- not once, but twice -- to do it.
And if no one else happens to know what she's been through to get to this point, that's OK, too.
"I want to prove that I'm just another athlete wanting to make the Olympic team and wanting to run fast," Anderson says. "So that's just been motivating me."
That may be true. But after overcoming the obstacles she had to make her Olympic dreams a reality, if there's one thing Gabriele Anderson isn't short on, it's motivation."
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