Detroit speed skater calls herself 'The Comeback Kid'

Kelly Gunther of Clinton Township says she faces challenges head on, dreamed of competing in Olympics as little girl

DETROIT - Kelly Gunther was born a fighter and she has proven it again and again.

The 26-year-old from Clinton Township calls herself "The Comeback Kid." Gunther is training to compete in long track speed skating at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"I just like to call myself The Comeback Kid just because of everything that I went through, and how I really did just come back from it all," said Gunther.

Everything she went through includes a devastating injury she suffered during the final race of the 2010 season. She suffered a double compound fracture and nearly lost her foot.

"I knew my ankle was broken. How bad it was? I had no idea," said Gunther. "The paramedics, I asked them if I was going to be able to skate again, and they were like, 'I don't think so, your foot's kind of  hanging off your leg,' and I'm like, 'You know, I'm going to be OK.'"

"I always knew I was going to be OK, I knew I could go through surgery. I just also kept telling myself, you know somewhere else, someone's worse. Someone could be dying right now. I'm alive, I'm OK."

Gunther had surgery and then underwent intense rehabilitation at the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs. She said doctors didn't tell her until she was in the clear that they were worried her bone could have died and if it did they would have had to amputate her foot. She said she is glad they didn't tell her while she was coming back from the injury.

Though it might not have mattered, she didn't believe them when they said she would never skate competitively again.

"The doctors said yeah, I'd be able to skate again, but at the level that I was at, they said no way. So I just kind of never took no for an answer and just kept going for what I wanted to," said Gunther. "I always wanted to live my dream ever since I was 6 years old and I wanted to keep going."

Six months after her injury, Gunther got back into skates. She began competing again at the Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City, Utah where she suffered the injury. She said it was one of the hardest things she has ever had to do.

"I actually balled at the starting line, I was like, 'I don't know if I can go,' but being a racer, you have to go when the gun goes off," said Gunther. "So I go when the gun goes off, I run around the corner where I'd fallen and just skated through it. I didn't' know if I was going to be able to, but I think right then and there it showed me, if I can skate through this corner, this first  time, I can keep skating through it."

Gunther has continued competing and at the Olympic trials she qualified for the 1,000 meters in long track speed skating.   

Before skating, Gunther has to spend 20 minutes stretching out her foot.

This is actually the second time she has qualified for an Olympic Games, but it will be the first time she will compete. During the trials for the 2010 Winter Games Gunther qualified but then lost her spot when another competitor skated faster than her during a re-skate.

"For it to be taken away was pretty hard, but I really found out who is the athlete I was going to be," said Gunther.  "I think it all happened for a reason. I went back to the rink the very next day, just to show how much I was a fighter, and how much I didn't get knocked down."

Gunther started in figure skating but found she was too fast for the music, so she switched to roller-skating when she was six years old. She went on to inline speed skating and did that for 10 years.

According to her inline speed skating coach, Robb Dunn, Gunther was a two-time member of the Junior World Championship team. She won the Junior National 300 meter vs. the clock in 2001 and she was the Junior Ladies National Indoor Champion in 2004.  Gunther also was a member of the Senior World Championship Team in 2006.

In an attempt to fulfill her childhood dreams of competing in the Olympics, Gunther switched to long track speed skating about five years ago. She joined the U.S. National Long Track Program in 2009.

"I've always wanted to go to the Olympics, since I was 6 years old," Gunther said.

Gunther credits her inline speed skating coach for a lot of her success.

"She's always done things that you just sit back and go, 'Wow,'" said Dunn.

Dunn watched Gunther grow up at Great Skate in Roseville.  Gunther was brought to tears when asked about how Dunn has helped her in her life.

"Rob has always been kind of a father figure to me," said Gunther. "I moved to Michigan and I lost contact with my father, so Rob really stepped in, would take me to practice every Tuesday so we would always have that car ride together and just, you know, getting me to the athlete who I really am today."

Dunn also feels very close to Gunther. He told Local 4 that one of his proudest moments was getting the call from Gunther that she had qualified for the Olympics in Sochi.

"Just worth it, the time you put in and stuff, the energy you put in. Being tough on her when it was hard to be tough on her, but being there for her, you know, I guess it paid off," said Dunn.

Gunther also credits her mother for her success and considers the two of them a team. She said her mother, Julie Sprague, is her best friend.

"I'm not just proud because she's an Olympian, I'm proud of the person she's become," said Sprague.

The Chippewa Valley High School graduate is just now speaking out about another challenge she has faced. Gunther said she has a learning disability. She has trouble with retention and it made school difficult.

"I've never told anybody about that. It's something I've kind of kept in, kept inside, but you know now now that I'm a 26-year-old why not inspire other people, why not help other girls, or kids, or what not, make their dreams come true? Just because you have something that's not perfect, or not right, doesn't mean you can stop living your dream or stop chasing your dream. You just have to find something else in a different way," Gunther said.

Gunther is trying to raise money to pay for her mother and her coach to travel to Sochi to see her compete.  There is a fundraising page available by clicking here:

The Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia from Feb. 7 until Feb. 23.

Gunther is one of three Metro Detroiters who will compete in speed skating in the Winter Olympics. Jessica Smith, of Melvindale, will compete in three events for women's short track, the 500 meter, 1000 meter and 1500 meter, and Jilleanne Rookard, of Woodhaven, will compete in the 3000 meter in long track speed skating.

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