By Marty Gitlin | May 21, 2014, 5:47 p.m. (ET)

AVON, Ohio -- When Olympic long track speedskater Kelly Gunther urged a group of children at the Avon YMCA near Cleveland to always persevere through whatever misfortune befalls them in life, she wasn’t giving the standard pep talk from an athlete. Gunther understood the meaning of her words from first-hand experience.

 
Kelly Gunther competes during the women's 1,000-meter speedskating event at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Adler Arena on Feb. 13, 2014.

“How many times you get knocked down is how many times you get up,” she said earlier this week as part of the United States Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow program, which spreads the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect. “My message to all of you is to always follow your dreams and never give up.”

If Gunther had not followed that same advice, she would not have landed a spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team that competed in Sochi earlier this year.

The 26-year-old, who was born and raised in nearby Lorain, appeared well on her way to a brilliant career after winning multiple junior world championships in relay events as an inline speedskater before transitioning to the traditional ice version of the sport. She was in the process of celebrating what she thought was the securing of a spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team when informed that a challenger had been granted a re-skate during the trials. The result was that Gunther was denied what she believed to be her rightful place on the team and a trip to Vancouver.

The worst was yet to come. That March, she fell during a race and suffered a double-compound fracture of her foot that nearly severed it from her leg. She felt her ankle hanging off. Doctors told her she would never skate again. If she had believed that, she never would have attempted what proved to be an inspiring comeback.

“I wasn’t on skates for six months,” she told the assembled group of youngsters. “But a very good surgeon put me back together, and three months later I was in Colorado Springs rehabbing. I always had Sochi in mind. I really wanted to be there, because all the doctors that helped me rehab were going to be there. Getting there meant a lot, because there was no way I would have made it without them.”

Gunther indeed returned to the ice and set two personal best times in November 2011. She earned a spot on the 2011-12 U.S. world cup team and placed third in the 1,000-meter at the national championships that same season. She managed another personal best at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials with a time of 1:16.43 to secure her dream of earning a spot on the American speedskating team. And though she was disappointed with her finish of 32nd in the long-track event in Russia, she has vowed not only to make the 2018 team, but also to medal.

The engaging athlete, whose stories motivated many questions from the curious young audience members, spoke about other obstacles she was forced to overcome in life, including a learning disability. She also recalled her first experiences in ice skating at the age of 6 in Lorain.

Olympian Kelly Gunther poses with Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin Jr. before throwing out the first pitch at the Detroit Tigers game against the Houston Astros on May 5, 2014.

“I loved it,” she said. “I knew it was something I wanted to do with my life. I remember watching the Olympics on television at a young age and saying, ‘I want to go to the Olympics one day.’ I wanted to make my dreams come true. The only trouble is that I never really liked the cold.”

Gunther tolerated the cold enough to spend some time as a figure skater before making the switch to inline speedskating. She understood the vast differences between the two sports, but there was an aspect of the latter that she embraced immediately.

“It’s me against the clock,” she told the kids. “I love going fast and turning left.”

Gunther has put competitive inline skating behind her for the time being, at least until her Olympic quests are over. But she continues to lace up those inline skates during the summer as part of her cross-training. In the meantime, she is seeking to maximize her potential on the long track.

She understands that she has a long way to go to reach the level necessary to earn a medal. But if she indeed makes that ultimate dream come true and can stand on the podium at the 2018 Winter Games with the national anthem blaring, she can return to her old stomping grounds again. And this time she would have an even more amazing story of perseverance and passion to tell.

Marty Gitlin is a writer from the Cleveland area. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.