KEARNS, Utah – There are comeback stories and then there’s Kelly Gunther.
Four years after a blow to her spirit and then a horrific ankle injury, she returned to the scene of both misfortunes to place fourth in the 1,000 meters at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating.
Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe went 1-2 for the second straight day at the Utah Olympic Oval after also claiming the top two positions in the 500, with Sugar Todd third.
Richardson clinched another nomination for the U.S. Olympic Team, pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee, while the other three are expected to be formally nominated to the team on Jan. 1, 2014.
Richardson and Bowe are considered medal favorites in the event at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games based on their world cup results and Bowe’s ownership of the world record.
But while they coolly did what they do best, the most emotional athlete during the victory ceremony — the one who finally had the Olympic Winter Games within her grasp after a four-year ordeal — was the 26-year-old Gunther.
“I like to be called the Comeback Kid,” she said. “I’ve definitely come through a lot and it just shows right there that you can never give up. You have to keep fighting for what you want.”
|Kelly Gunther competes in the women's 1,000-meter during the
2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating at the
Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 29, 2013 in Kearns, Utah.
Gunther’s bad breaks began after she thought she’d made the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team. The qualification process was different then, with three skaters named to the team and Gunther competing for the fourth and final spot at the 2010 U.S. Speedskating Championships. She had the fastest times in two days of racing.
“They took me to drug testing because I was named the winner,” Gunther said. “US Speedskating had tweeted it, so I thought I was going to Vancouver.”
However, Rebekah Bradford, who had fallen during her pair, got a reskate and put in a faster time, bumping Gunther.
“Dreams kind of got crushed,” Gunther said, “and two months later it was my accident. But if you’re a warrior inside, I just had to come through and fight through it.”
All she remembers of the accident is falling early in a 500-meter race. “My feet kind of slipped underneath me,” Gunther said. Her right blade sliced her left ankle.
“My foot was hanging off my leg,” she said, “but I kept telling myself on the ice: ‘Someone’s in worse pain. I’m going to be OK.’”
She asked the paramedics if she would skate again. “They’re like, ‘Your foot’s kind of hanging off your leg.’”
Gunther had surgery and underwent rehabilitation at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. She was off her skates for six months, the longest period of time since she began skating at age 6.
The former figure skater and inline skater returned to the ice to continue pursuing her Olympic dream. But now she can’t skate unless her ankle is stretched out for 15-20 minutes.
“It’s a reminder every day how bad it was,” she said, “but it’s almost stronger than it was before I had fallen. I knew I could do it.”
Still, the Ohio native marvels that she was able to come back and train “where everything happened. I’m a really big believer that everything happens for a reason and there’s a reason why I fell at this rink, so making this 2014 team is icing on the cake.”
She made the team with Richardson and Bowe, two old friends she has known since her inline skating days. “I have world championships medals with Brittany and Heather in relays, so it’s pretty good to be on the Olympic team with them after I was growing up with them.”
The feeling is mutual. “For Kelly to go through what she went through four years ago is something really special,” Bowe said. “Talk about perseverance and never giving up. That’s the definition of it right there.”
Richardson clocked 1 minute, 13.22 seconds in the race while Bowe, skating one pair later, came in at 1:13.92. Todd’s time was 1:15:72 and Gunther’s 1:16.43. She barely eclipsed Elli Ochowicz (1:16:51), who missed her fourth straight Olympic team for the second day in a row, while Bradford-Plath, who had replaced Gunther four years earlier, was sixth in 1:16.53.
“I had no expectations,” Gunther said. “I just had to go out there and have fun and see what I could do. And I pulled through.”
Bowe did have expectations after setting the world record of 1:12.58 on the same track in November.
“It wasn’t as fast as I would have liked to go, but the good thing is it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I put myself on the Olympic team and that’s what’s important today.”
Richardson won three of the four world cup races this season, with Bowe winning the fourth and making every podium. They are roommates and push each other on the ice.
“We just go out and do the best that we can,” said Richardson, who has tattoos of koi fish on both feet. “Everyone wants to win, so we are definitely working hard to get that 1 and 2 together. That would be awesome.”
While Richardson knows she’ll experience a considerable amount of pressure at the Games, she feels she got used to it at the World Sprint Championships at the Utah Olympic Oval last year.
“I think that gave me an advantage to prepare for Sochi,” she said, “and just remember (to) take deep breaths and relax and have fun. That’s when I skate my best.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 13 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.