Be Brave Like Gabe

A tribute to Gabriele Grunewald, gone too soon.

By Jocelyn Wong Neill

A little known story: when I was 19, I never made it to the start line of the first Ironman I had ever signed up for. (And yes, I do realize how strange even that statement is–to be signed up for an Ironman at age 19! Perhaps a longer story for another time.)

It was May of 2001. This was back when Ironman California was still a full Ironman at Camp Pendleton, the US Marine Corps base just outside of San Diego and about 80 miles south of my college. Unbeknownst to all of us, 2011 would also be the last year this race was the full Ironman distance, as it would be permanently shortened to a half-ironman (or “70.3” as the kids call it these days) for security reasons following the events of 9/11. I had trained all year and spent the previous summer working part-time at SportMart (now Dick’s Sporting Goods) to save up for the $325 entry fee.

A few weeks before the Ironman, I went to the on-campus health clinic as my seasonal allergies were more annoying than usual. I remember opening my throat to say “Ahh”, and the confused and slightly alarmed nurse bringing her supervisor in, who in turn also seemed slightly alarmed but was obviously trying to hide it. I would end up seeing an Ear Nose Throat specialist and got a CT scan to confirm the suspicious mass that was found on my tonsil. There was a whirlwind of words being thrown around like “possible cancer” and “tumor” and “chemotherapy”.

Being the typical invincible teenager who was afraid of nothing (not Ironman, and not cancer!) I was fairly unfazed about the prospect of a cancerous mass growing on my tonsil, and much more concerned about getting through the impending Ironman. As I just mentioned, I had trained all year for it, damn it, and already paid the whopping $325 entry fee! (I laugh so hard about this now, because I’m pretty sure the current going rate for an Ironman entry fee is over $700.) The doctors wanted me to get a tonsillectomy ASAP, which would take a bit of recovery time, but “NO,” I told my mom, “Let me do the Ironman first!” I think my mom was so stunned with the whole situation that she went along with my plan…up until she told her mother…and my lovely Grandmother (who has since passed) immediately put her foot down and said (pretty much, in Chinese) “absolutely not.” This decision was made just 8 days before Ironman California and I was hysterical. This was the only time I cried during the whole situation–because I was upset about missing my first Ironman, and still not concerned about the mass on my tonsil! They took me home and instead of crossing the finish line of my first Ironman, I had my tonsils removed.

It’s been 18 years, so obviously there’s a happy ending here: the mass turned out to be completely benign. I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy. I don’t consider myself a cancer survivor, just someone who had a forgettable cancer scare. All my older triathlon friends (well, back then everyone in my local tri club, Inland Inferno, was older than me by two to four decades) sent me supportive messages, and told me “There will be other Ironmans.” At that moment, I felt so devastated and disappointed. Eventually, I would feel grateful. And there were, in fact, many other Ironmans. A year later, at the age of 20 (still ridiculously young), I completed my first Ironman at the inaugural IM Wisconsin in 2002. I would eventually finish 22 Ironmans by the time I was 30, with most of those in the professional women’s field from 2009 to 2011.

I’m 37 now, and to be honest, up until this week I had nearly forgotten about the cancer scare that occurred almost two decades ago. I continue to be in good health (my friends would call that an understatement), and the only remnant of that 2001 tonsillectomy is that I have “ALLERGY: IODINE CONTRAST” printed on the RoadID that I wear every day, an allergy that was discovered during the CT scan of my throat all those years ago.

As a prosthetist-orthotist in my post-triathlon “grown up job”, I see multiple pediatric and adult patients who have undergone amputations of their legs due to cancer. In fact, my own boss had Ewing’s sarcoma when he was in high school and wears a prosthesis. I’ve made prosthetic legs for those with transtibial (below-the-knee) and transfemoral (above-the-knee) amputations, hemi-pelvectomy amputations (the entire leg and part of the pelvis is removed), and those who have undergone a Van Ness rotationplasty (look that up–it’s wild but extremely effective). I’ve worked with adults who just had their 10-year screening with no evidence of the cancer recurring (YAY!), and children who continue to go back into the hospital for chemotherapy treatments when the cancer comes back (BOOOO). And every so often, one of them doesn’t make it. The truth is that cancer is an ugly beast that doesn’t discriminate between your age, race, religion, or if you’ve been a good or bad person.

When I stepped away from triathlon several years ago, I became a more avid fan of women’s professional running. I follow all the amazing American track & field and marathon stars on Instagram, listen to podcast interviews, and catch running races when they actually have free live streams on the internet. Gabe Grunewald, who was a top 1500m runner and multiple-time cancer survivor, sadly lost her decade-long battle with adenoid cystic sarcoma (ACC) earlier this week, at the young age of 32. I’ve followed her for years, as her courageous story of overcoming her rare cancer diagnoses beginning from her college years was well-known in the running community.

Be Brave Like GabeFollowing her first two cancer diagnoses, she would race her best times and finish as high as 4th place in the 2012 US Olympic track trials in the 1500m (only one spot off from qualifying for the Olympics) and became the 2014 indoor national champion in the 3000m. I remember learning more about her when cancer struck her for the third time, and saw the documentary that came out 3 years ago when she continued to try qualifying for the US Championships in between chemo treatments. I remember her continuing to compete with a very large and visible abdomen scar from having half of her liver removed, and when she started her “Brave Like Gabe” foundation, which raises funds for rare cancer research. I remember her podcast interview when she talked about meeting Chip from Fixer Upper, and eventually coaching him to his first marathon. Thanks to Instagram, her husband Justin kept us all up to date when her condition began to sharply decline over this past weekend.

Yet for as long as I’ve followed her, it never occurred to me that my story paralleled Gabe’s at all. Because again, my college cancer scare was so inconsequential that I really did forget about what it was like to be a college athlete with a suspicious mass, until I read this recent article from Women’s Running. Gabe’s first bout with cancer came her senior year in college at the age of 22 while she was competing on the track & field team at the University of Minnesota. It was diagnosed in her salivary gland as adenoic cystic carcinoma, an extremely rare form of cancer, and first presented as a suspicious lump by her left ear.

I’ve always been a very passionate and determined athlete (or my mom would say “just stubborn”), and as much as I’ve forgotten about that 2001 cancer scare, I wonder if it made me even more determined to pursue triathlon to the highest level. In the same vein, I wonder if the adversity from multiple cancer battles pushed Gabe even harder and higher up the professional running ranks. I’m reminded today that not all inspirational cancer stories have happy endings, and though I was a pretty ungrateful 19-year-old at the time, today I’m eternally thankful that the mass in my tonsil turned out completely benign.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experiences and Gabe’s story, it’s to have gratitude for your health, and that every day is never a given. Life isn’t fair, and good people are taken too soon. Thank you, Gabe, for teaching us how important it is to be brave in the face of impossible odds, to cherish every day, and to never be afraid to go after your biggest dreams no matter what obstacles stand in your way.

#bravelikegabe #runningonhope

Jocelyn Wong Neill

Jocelyn is a certified prosthetist-orthotist and former professional triathlete. She previously worked at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington DC, and is currently the clinical director at Independence Prosthetics-Orthotics at the University of Delaware STAR Campus with an appointment as affiliate assistant professor to the UD Physical Therapy Department. She raced as the first Asian-American female professional triathlete specializing in the Ironman distance from 2009-2011, training under legendary coach Brett Sutton with teamTBB, and has 22 Ironman finishes to her name. To continue serving the military population, Jocelyn volunteers as the Team Red White & Blue Northern Delaware Chapter co-captain with her husband Kevin. Though retired from triathlons, she enjoys running with her little dog Aero while chasing her next big goal of a sub-3 marathon. You can find Jocelyn on Instagram at @jwneill302, on her personal blog at, or leading a local Team RWB event in Northern Delaware (

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