US speedskater Gunther makes Olympics in comeback

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By BETH HARRISAP Sports Writer

Kelly Gunther is reminded daily of the time when she couldn’t put on skates and go fast on the ice. The speedskater needs to have her left ankle worked on for 15 minutes before she can slip her foot into her clap skate.

The necessary massage and stretching is the result of a devastating crash that sidelined Gunther in March 2010, a couple of months after she didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team.

The compound fracture of her left ankle required six months of recovery that often left Gunther doubting her future on the ice.

She turned those bad memories into good last weekend, earning a berth on the U.S. team in the 1,000 meters.

The long-track trials took a day off Monday and will resume Tuesday with the men’s and women’s 1,500 races, when Gunther will try to qualify in a second event.

Nearly four years ago, Gunther was 100 meters into a 500 sprint race when she lost control. She slid toward the barrier blades first. One skate got stuck in the wall, and the other came down on the boot, slicing the bone just below her left ankle in half.

”I really don’t know how it happened,” she said at the Utah Olympic Oval, the same place where the accident occurred. ”I remember being with the paramedics thinking, `Am I going to skate again?’ The paramedics are like, `Your foot is kind of hanging off your leg.”’

Gunther told herself that surgery would repair her ankle.

”Just saying that right then and there, I knew I was going to be OK,” she said.

Gunther relocated to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. She spent almost four months in a cast and another two months in a walking boot. She rehabbed twice a day.

”That’s the longest I’ve ever been off my skates since I was 6 years old, ever since I put skates on,” the 26-year-old skater from Lorain, Ohio, said. ”Having them off for about six months was very hard for me. I had to fight back and knew I could do it.”

In her first event at these trials, Gunther finished seventh in the 500. Only the top four skaters qualified for Sochi.

In the 1,000, she finished fourth, grabbing the last available berth with a personal best time of 1 minute, 16.43 seconds.

”Talk about perseverance and never giving up,” friend and fellow speedskater Brittany Bowe said. ”That’s the definition of it right there.”

Gunther listened to Miley Cyrus’ song ”Do My Thang” before she went to the starting line.

”I kept my cool. I wasn’t really nervous,” she said. ”I was just like, `Go have fun, Kelly. I have to do this for myself.’ I did it for myself.”

Former Olympic medalist Kip Carpenter, now a U.S. long-track coach, said, ”Lots of people have comeback stories. That’s a real one.”

Gunther started out as a figure skater and then competed for 10 years in inline skating, where she met future Olympic teammates Bowe and Heather Richardson. Like them, Gunther was successful in that sport, but she had bigger hopes.

”My dream was always to go to the Olympics,” she said.

Gunther thought she’d made the 2010 team after a first-place time that qualified her. But Rebekah Bradford fell and was given a re-skate. Bradford recorded a faster time than Gunther, who was bumped from the team.

”I’m a really big believer that everything happens for a reason and there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason why I fell at this rink,” she said. ”Making this 2014 team is just icing on the cake with everything I’ve been through and skating here every day.”

Gunther’s grandfather was a firefighter in her hometown, and she clearly draws some of her bravery from him.

”I’m a fighter,” she said. ”I fought through it and you have to be mentally strong to keep going and do what I did.”