Gabe Grunewald crossed the finish line first in the women's 3,000-meter race at the 2014 USA Indoor Track & Field Championships two weeks ago, and the flashbulbs caught a look of pure elation and relief.
Sporting the neon-yellow Brooks uniform, her name emblazoned across the front of her race bib, she instinctively outstretched her arms, tipped her head back and smiled in a show of unbridled emotion.
"Finally," she thought.
This was her first national title, but equally important, it meant that she had punched her ticket to race at the World Indoor Championships, which are being held Friday through Sunday in Sopot, Poland. It would be her first chance to represent the United States in a major championship.
A tense race before the gun even fired, the women's 3,000 field had three runners who held the IAAF qualifying time necessary to go to worlds -- Grunewald, Shannon Rowbury and Jordan Hasay. Since only the top two at nationals with the standard earn a spot on the team, they all knew at least one of them wouldn't be going to Poland.
For someone with a reputation for having a menacing kick, it was to Grunewald's advantage that the indoor national meet was held in Albuquerque, N.M., at 5,000 feet above sea level. The altitude often causes races to stay at a moderate pace until the later stages, and that's exactly how this one played out.
When the bell signaling the final lap rang, Rowbury was in the lead, followed by Hasay and Grunewald. That's when Grunewald made her move, hurtling past both women at a breakneck pace. NBC Sports Network commentator Tim Hutchings described Grunewald, with her lethal speed, as being "like an out-of-control toy car." By the time she hit the line, she was nearly 20 meters ahead of Rowbury. Hasay had fallen back to a disappointing fourth place behind Sara Vaughn.
"I had been waiting for that moment for four years," the 27-year-old Grunewald said. "You never know how many races you're going to get. You have to celebrate every [personal record] and every win, because you never know when a PR is going to be a lifetime best. When I crossed that finish line, I thought, 'The chance to win a U.S. title may never happen again, so enjoy it.'"
The makings of a champion
Grunewald knows better than most how precious and fragile the happiest moments can be. Her first cancer diagnosis came in 2009 during her final college track season at the University of Minnesota. A lump in her neck was determined to be adenoid cystic carcinoma in her salivary glands. She got the news from her doctor while at a meet in Tempe, Ariz., and she decided to go through with her scheduled 1,500-meter race anyway. In an act of supreme toughness, she pulled off a personal best, running 4 minutes, 22.87 seconds.
The choice to forge ahead and race was a harbinger of how Grunewald would handle other challenges down the road.
After surgery and eight weeks of radiation that left burns on her skin and little hair on her head, she began the slow process of healing. She filed for a medical hardship with the NCAA and gained another season of eligibility in track so she could finish what she'd started. Six months after surgery, she had the go-ahead from her doctors to begin running. Soon she would put on her maroon-and-gold singlet again and resume racing.
By outdoor track season, she wasn't back to being her old self. She was better. Just one year after that heart-dropping phone call from her doctor, she ran 4:20.56 in the 1,500 at the same meet in Arizona. Soon after, she was runner-up in both the 1,500 and 800 at the Big Ten championships, missing the top spot in the 800 by just 0.01 of a second. She was also runner-up in the 1,500 at the 2010 NCAA outdoor championships, finishing as an All-American with a personal best of 4:13.45.
"Coaches kept coming up to me asking what we were doing different in training," said Gary Wilson, Grunewald's coach at the University of Minnesota, who is now retired. "I just said, 'When you've beat cancer and you stand on that starting line, nothing compares to the battle you've already come through. Thirty-seven bouts of radiation will give you perspective.'"
Before cancer, professional running wasn't even on Grunewald's radar. After her stunning comeback, though, she began to get recruited, leading her to join Team USA Minnesota and snag a sponsorship from Brooks. Given this unexpected turn of events, she worked to capitalize on that momentum as she rolled into her professional career in 2010.
Life had other plans, however.
During a regular checkup, her doctor found a growth on her thyroid, which turned out to be malignant. It was thought to be unrelated to the first cancer. Doctors decided to remove her thyroid and put her on radioactive iodine treatments. One major difference from the first diagnosis was that she was able to resume running just weeks after surgery. Following a short downtime, she was back pounding the pavement.
Since then Grunewald has remained healthy, lowering her personal best in the 1,500 to 4:01.48 and placing among the leaders at a number of big races. She logged third- and fifth-place finishes at the USA 1 Mile Road Championships in 2011 and 2013, and was third in the mile at the USA Indoor Championships in 2011, fourth in the 1,500 at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, and fifth at the USA 5K Championships in 2012.
Still, she hadn't yet claimed a first-place finish at a major event. Until that moment in Albuquerque.
Battle off the track
Just minutes after her big win, Grunewald's husband, Justin, was tipped off by another athlete and the athlete's coach that Alberto Salazar, Hasay's coach, had protested the 3,000-meter results. His complaint involved contact made between Grunewald and Hasay 180 meters from the finish. Indeed, jockeying for position, Grunewald had clipped Hasay's foot as she maneuvered to get around her, but the official nearest to the incident ruled there was no infraction.
When Salazar's protest was denied, he appealed to the Jury of Appeal. That was also denied. Since USATF (USA Track & Field) rules state that the appeals process ends there unless "new conclusive evidence is presented," Grunewald thought she was in the clear.
"I went to do drug testing and had been told that I was fine and was on the team since they had ruled in my favor once already," she said. "After I got done, they told me again that I was still on the team."
She proceeded to team processing, proudly donning the Team USA uniform for the first time and booking her flight to Poland. She was official.
But not long after Grunewald had been fitted for her gear, in an unanticipated reversal, USATF released a statement that read in part: "After two reviews, including enhanced video evidence, Gabe Grunewald was disqualified by the Jury of Appeal for clipping and impeding the stride of Jordan Hasay." That meant Rowbury and Hasay were in; Grunewald was out.
"I was just shocked and definitely confused," Grunewald said. "Knowing we had already gone through the protest and appeals process and everything had been ruled in my favor, I just didn't understand."
Justin said that lack of transparency fueled the confusion, citing the fact that USATF denied requests by Grunewald's camp that they be allowed to review the video, and that USATF explain where the enhanced video had come from in the first place.
"They wouldn't give us any information or let us watch the video, so we didn't even know what we were fighting," he said.
Back at their hotel, they reviewed the race online, which reassured them that it had to be a big mistake. To be sure, shoes collide all the time, especially on a cramped indoor track. Every competitive runner has scars and gashes, permanent battle wounds from being stepped on and spiked. It comes with the territory.
"You can usually tell when a foul has been made," Justin said. "We didn't know what more we could do and felt a little defeated. Life can just be unfair."
Fighting the good fight
As Grunewald's coach, Dennis Barker, and agent, Paul Doyle, worked to challenge the disqualification, Grunewald went through a roller coaster of emotions, but one thought dominated.
"I knew right away that I'd be strong enough to endure something like this and be OK," she said. "One thing the health issues have given me is life perspective, so I knew that even if the title was taken away from me, I would still love running and I would still get out there again. I have other stuff to look forward to and be thankful for."
That didn't mean she was going to back down from a disqualification she felt was unwarranted, though.
"I knew it was worth the fight," she said. "Sometimes you get to choose your battles and sometimes they choose you. I feel like a lot of my battles have chosen me, but maybe I was just born to be a fighter. That's OK with me."
"If I had been in her situation, I don't know if I would have been able to stand, much less come to the track the next day to support us the way she did," said Heather Kampf, one of Grunewald's University of Minnesota and Team USA Minnesota teammates, who will be competing at the world championships in the 1,500. "She's so strong and she knows life is so much bigger because of all she's been through."
Meanwhile, a firestorm was brewing on social media over the incident. Top athletes and fans were not only outraged by what they thought was an unfair disqualification, but they were also concerned with the national governing body's unwillingness to release the "enhanced video evidence."
Over the course of 24 hours, Grunewald's Twitter following swelled and the hashtags #USATFcorruption and #FreeGabe began trending. Thousands signed a petition on Change.org calling for greater transparency from the USATF. Another petition sprouted up on the Track and Field Athletes Association website calling for modifications of the appeals process at championship events. The exasperated tone included many of the elites demanding reform in their sport.
"I think that every one of us could see ourselves in that position -- we all had that doubt in our minds that even when you do everything right in a race, it might not be enough," Kampf said.
Justin said Gabe received overwhelming support from runners and fans alike, which kept the couple's spirits up during a tense time, adding, "You read some of the crazy-nice things people write and it makes every hair on your body stand up. That happened a thousand times. It's amazing how kind people were."
On to worlds
Along with the public uproar, Grunewald signed legal paperwork the evening after the race in preparation for taking her case to arbitration. Before it moved forward, however, Hasay withdrew her protest, saying in part via a USATF news release, "I do not want to make a national team under these circumstances."
Grunewald was then reinstated as the 3,000 national champion and promptly added to the worlds team roster.
Down the line, Grunewald hopes that a similar debacle can be avoided. With a meeting reportedly set between USATF and the Track and Field Athletes Association for March 10 to discuss procedures for protests and appeals, she may just get her wish.
"No one wants to be in the situation I was in, but I'm happy to go through it if no athlete ever has to do this again," she said. "The worst-case scenario would be for this to blow over without getting processes in place that everyone feels good about."
If history is any indicator, Grunewald performs best in the face of adversity -- the larger the challenge, the more fervent the comeback. So in the end, the fiasco in Albuquerque may end up being a blessing in disguise going into worlds this weekend.
"Her success is still amazing to me in some ways, but not in others," Wilson said. "This is just Gabe. She's resilient as heck and feisty, too. When she's faced with a challenge, you don't mess with her."
While the road has never been easy, Grunewald is becoming comfortable with being known as the comeback kid, beating the odds time and again.
"I never expected this to be my journey, but I try to do my best to share my story," she said. "Sometimes it's easier not to fight when things get tough, but if you keep pushing, great things can happen."