Gabe would not die today. At least not if she had a say.
Having reviewed dire medical labs, her family had made the excruciating decision to move her to comfort care, dialing back her comprehensive medical treatment.
But Gabe, who framed her own perspective on life each day, especially in her final days, had other intentions.
By her husband Justin’s account, she moved her body from lethal blood levels that left her unresponsive, to waking in the morning to order a Shake Shack burger, by summoning the strength and determination needed to scream “NOT TODAY” as she drifted off to sleep.
Honestly, I never knew what it meant to be “Brave Like Gabe.” It’s the name of her foundation that raises funds for cancer research, but I didn’t know what it really meant.
I’d known that Gabriele Grunewald had beaten back cancer. Multiple times. But having not followed her story closely I wasn’t clear on the essence of her bravery.
After all, all of Athletics requires bravery. The sport insists you submit your effort to the elements in order to put a performance on display. To arrive in the arena prepared you must summon strength repeatedly, continuously, such that each day builds incrementally on the last, to move yourself forward, agonizingly slowly, nearly imperceptibly, to form your body’s greatest ability.
As such, athletes can be forgiven for sweating the details. For obsessing the small stuff. Strength, nutrition, sleep, footwear, apparel and mind games, nothing is left unoptimized in pursuit of progress. There’s always a new gadget. Another tool or trick to find your way forward.
But for Gabe it wasn’t so simple. She didn’t get to only manage the margins of her ability. Cancer grew within her incredibly fast body right at the onset of her professional career. Having it even once would be justification for abandoning the hopeful endeavor of Athletics. An athlete could be excused for losing faith in her ability to perform at the world level after a single course of Chemo. Or two. Or three. But not Gabe.
Reviewing the highs and lows of her Pro racing career it’s difficult to understand how she continued to progress despite the rollercoaster of her cancer-ridden body’s ability. From sure, all pro athletes succumb to inflamed tendons, cascading fatigue, and even broken bones, but all that pales in comparison to racing the mile as your body simultaneously harbors cancer. In a sport that can obsess every element, that tunes spikes and singlets by the ounce, it’s unimaginable that she continued to compete while growing a tumor that weighed more than four pounds.
So as Gabe fought back once more, as she declared “NOT TODAY!” to the world, I imagine she was just doing as she’d done so many times before. In her world being “Brave” meant refusing to succumb to practical pressures and expectations. Avoiding the path of least resistance towards negativity and excuse. Coming back from three bouts of cancer and chemo to rise to the high of National Champion in 2014 must have meant endless instances when she simply had to maximize what she could in that moment, on that day. It must have meant countless days of starting with less and working against more than most would feel is fair. Of being courageous enough not to give up on herself on the day, again and again. And accepting it all with grit and grace.
In her husband Justin’s final photo of her resting by loved ones, she lays beneath a banner that reads, “There are only two ways to live your life. One as though nothing is a miracle, the other as though everything is a miracle.”
Accepting such gratitude for the miracle of each moment is so easy to say, yet so difficult to do.
If maintaining Gabe’s professional level of optimism is asking a lot, if believing that each moment is miraculous is expecting too much, maybe each of us simply need to start by saying “No” more often. Maybe we need to state emphatically that while we’ve given up on ourselves in the past, and may well again in the future, we won’t today, at least not in this moment.
It’s a simple refusal that has profound power when employed as a guardrail against the impulse to shortchange yourself. It flips the standard script towards negativity, giving yourself one more chance at a better outcome.
Not Today to succumbing to impatience and stress.
Not Today to giving in to fear and insecurity.
Not Today to anything other than celebrating this moment for what it’s worth. Regardless of how hard, frustrating or unfair it may seem.
Thank You Gabe. I never knew you, but I admire you. And I aspire to maintain your diligent refusal of the negative.
Someday things might not go your way, but Not Today.
1986 – 2019