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They were NCAA athletes who fought for championships and proudly wore their school colors for every competition. Now, their uniforms are plainer — often pale blue and white — but the work they’re doing sometimes still brings fans to their feet.

Dr. Justin Grunewald is a former Gophers distance runner who competed in the 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon trials. Now he is at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, on the front lines in the COVID-19 battle.

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Rachael (Bona) Guentzel was part of a women’s hockey dynasty with the Gophers, winning three NCAA championships. Now she works not on the coronavirus front lines, but as an oncology nurse, caring for cancer patients.

Ashley Birdsall is a professional hockey player for the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts. That’s not her primary job, though. She’s also Capt. Ashley Birdsall for the Minnesota Army National Guard, working a crucial role for the Guard’s COVID-19 response unit.

Upon returning from Buffalo after the hockey season, she got “thrown right back into the fire,” the Duluth native said.

But an adoring nation appreciates it. In scenes being played out daily across the country, the general public is stopping to applaud these doctors, nurses and support staff for the work they are doing.

“In two months or so, we’re going to be the ones on the front lines expecting to care for these patients.”
Kersten Schwanz, former U rower and med school graduate

For these and other former college athletes, they sometimes hearken back to lessons learned through sports. The one most often mentioned: teamwork.

“I’m working with tons of different people — nurses, doctors, physical therapy,” Guentzel said. “Just being able to work well with other people is something that hockey and sports in general have allowed me to get really good at.”

Shifting on the fly

A big part of teamwork is adaptability, an important trait during the ever-shifting times created by the pandemic. Kersten Schwanz, a former Gophers rower, graduated from the U’s medical school on May 1, albeit in a virtual commencement rather than walking across a stage.

When the crisis hit, the med school pulled its students off clinical rotations. For Schwanz, that meant stepping up in more of a teaching role.

“In two months or so, we’re going to be the ones on the front lines expecting to care for these patients,” said Schwanz, a three-sport athlete from Simley High School who’ll begin her residency at the Fairview University of Minnesota Hospital in June. “… We went into medicine being the ones who are running toward the fire when the fire is happening, and now we’re just sitting on the sidelines.”

Stephanie (Price) Reneau has become adept at adapting, too. The former Gophers All-America runner is a nurse practitioner who works in urgent care at Hudson Physicians in Hudson, Wis.

“At one point we had only 30 or 40 tests for COVID, so that has great impact on who we decide to test and when we test,” said Reneau, a four-sport athlete from Mankato Loyola.

Grunewald, in his third year as an attending physician, has parallels with Reneau in dealing with shortages.

In late March, personal protective equipment was in demand, and he had to wear an N95 mask for 10 consecutive shifts. Supplies of PPEs have improved, but recently disinfectant wipes have been scarce. “It’s always something,” he said.

Taking charge

With leadership comes confidence, and that clearly comes through with the former college athletes sampled for this story. Grunewald, for example, has the role of a Hospitalist at Abbott Northwestern.

“If you go to the ER, if you’re sick enough to come into the hospital, I’m the one who takes care of you,” he said, succinctly describing his role.

Grunewald’s leadership has been on display over the past year. Last June, his wife, national champion distance runner Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald, died at age 32 after a decadelong battle with cancer. Justin has carried on the Brave Like Gabe Foundation to support cancer research.

“If people can just be patient. If we’re smart and get through [to] the other side, the world’s going to be a better place.”
Dr. Justin Grunewald, former Gophers distance runner

Birdsall takes charge in her position as the Joint Operations Center officer for the Guard’s COVID-19 response unit. That role came about when Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order on March 21 authorizing the Guard to assist state agencies in coordination with the State Emergency Operations Center.

She is one of more than 18,500 Army or Air National Guard troops nationwide that have been mobilized for the pandemic.

“We’re readily available and continue to support and plan any facet that is requested by the governor,” said Birdsall, a Duluth East graduate who had a four-year hockey career at Wisconsin-Superior. “That is our purpose as the Guard, to respond to natural disasters and occurrences in the state. We continue to plan and get ourselves organized for what the governor may ask of us.”

The Guard is Birdsall’s full-time job, and she often traveled from Buffalo to Minnesota during the NWHL season for Guard duties as a training technician. She returned to Minnesota in March after the Beauts’ season ended, right before the call came for the Guard.

(Clockwise from upper left): Dr. Justin Grunewald, Rachael Bona Guentzel, Kersten Schwanz and Stephanie Reneau are all former Gophers or Minnesota athletes now in the medical field and on the front line combating the coronavirus pandemic.
(Clockwise from upper left): Dr. Justin Grunewald, Rachael Bona Guentzel, Kersten Schwanz and Stephanie Reneau are all former Gophers or Minnesota athletes now in the medical field and on the front line combating the coronavirus pandemic.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune (Grunewald); submitted or file photos

Planning and logistics are the Guard’s duties in the state’s COVID-19 response. The Guard has delivered PPE for first responders, organized blood drives at Fort Ripley, assisted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and helped the Minnesota Department of Health in maintenance on oxygen delivery systems, among other duties.

“It gets pretty busy, and you start to lose track of what day it is,” Birdsall said.

Staying grounded

The stressful environment caused by the pandemic can take its toll, and each of these athletes finds methods to cope with it.

Nationwide, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 9,200 healthcare workers — and likely more — were infected from COVID-19 between Feb. 12 and April 9.

Grunewald remains a competitive runner in 50-mile events, and the downtown Minneapolis resident spends part of his time training. He runs the Stone Arch Bridge or the wide-open spaces of Afton State Park.

He is encouraged by Minnesota’s response to COVID-19 but urges caution.

“If people can just be patient,” he said. “If we’re smart and get through [to] the other side, the world’s going to be a better place.”

For Guentzel, whose husband, Gabe, is a former Colorado College hockey standout, these uncertain times are added to a personal situation. She is 27 weeks pregnant.

“That’s scary in its own way,” she said, adding that she hasn’t had to work directly with patients with COVID-19 nor ones that haven’t had the virus ruled out.

Reneau, the former Gophers runner, draws upon sense of community in her work.

“There’s a feeling of camaraderie where we’re all coming together,” she said. “… In a lot of ways, it’s been a very positive thing, but we would just like it to no longer be an issue in the near future.”

Schwanz has embraced a unique opportunity. To help other medical professionals, a group of U of M med school students started the COVIDsitters program (mncovidsitters.org) in which they provide services such as baby-sitting, dog-watching and errand-running. Schwanz is one of the volunteers.

“It’s really cool and makes us feel a little more satisfied with our situation,” Schwanz said. “… We’re on our computers, watching lectures. If I can watch a kid in the background or take a dog out for a run, I’m all about it.”

And Birdsall plans to continue juggling Guard duties with her professional hockey career. She is trying to stay close to the sport.

“I’ve strapped on the rollerblades a few times,” she said. “I’ve definitely missed being on the ice, that’s for sure. I’m waiting for the day the rinks open.”