Sochi Winter Olympics: Kelly Gunther’s amazing return after devastating ankle injury

29 Jan
While skating in Olympic trials in 2010, the unthinkable happened to Kelly Gunther. She was looking more and more like a potential Olympic medalist – she’d been skating since the age of six, had won several relay gold medals as a member of the Junior World Championship squad for inline skating, and had narrowly missed a spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team for Long Track Speedskating.

kelly gunther sochi olympics speed skating ankle injury

In March of 2010, during a 500-meter race at the American Cup series in Utah, Gunther suddenly, unexpectedly fell. She lost control when one foot tangled with the other, and she slid toward the barrier blades first.  One skate stuck in the wall, and the other came down on her boot, slicing the bone just below her left ankle. She had a double compound fracture and the skin on her ankle was lacerated, exposing bone, tendon, muscle, everything. And she was losing lots of blood. “My foot was hanging off my leg,” she said, and later remarked that if the paramedics hadn’t had the training and good sense to cut her skate from her foot, it would have probably come off in the boot. “I knew my ankle was broken, but I had no idea it wasn’t attached to my leg.”

Yet – and you may find this hard to believe –  Gunther skated two personal best times a year later, made the World Cup Team for 2011-2012, and placed third in the 1000 meters at the 2011-2012 National Championships. At the 2014 U.S. Olympic Trials, she skated her best-ever time in the 1000 meters to place fourth, winning her a spot on the U.S. Olympic Long Track Speedskating Team headed for Sochi. They don’t call her the comeback kid for nothing.  “I’ve definitely come through a lot”, she says, “and it just shows right there that you can never give up. You have to keep fighting for what you want.”

How did she come back?

While she was still on the ice, paramedics started an IV, and doctors worked furiously to save her foot. Later, surgeons inserted 10 screws and a metal plate into Gunther’s foot and ankle to keep the broken bones together. She spent four months in a cast, and two months in a walking boot. Twice each day she underwent intensive rehabilitation at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, performing exercises like picking up marbles with her toes and then thrusting her foot into a bucket of ice to wriggle the cramps out. All the while her doctors feared that the bone which had been shorn off by the blade might die, and Kelly would lose half of her foot.

But six months later, she was back on the ice. Most thought her chances of competing again on an Olympic level were a distant dream, yet Gunther’s on her way to Sochi.

The memory of her accident is with her every day, a not-so-gentle reminder of how easily dreams can be dashed. Before each event, Kelly has to have her leg worked on for 15-20 minutes – stretching and massage – so she can get her ankle into her clap skate. “It’s a reminder every day of how bad it was,” she says. “To keep fighting and how strong [the leg] is now, it’s almost stronger now than before I had fallen.”

What a remarkable story of determination. Kelly Gunther joins her fellow athletes on the Women’s Olympic Longtrack Speedskating Team: Brittany Bowe, Lauren Cholewinski, Maria Lamb, Heather Richardson, Anna Ringsred, Jilleanne Rookard, and Sugar Todd.

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