Lorain native Kelly Gunther fulfilled an Olympic dream two decades in the making Sunday.
The 26-year-old punched her ticket to Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics with a fourth-place finish in the women’s 1,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Speedskating Trials at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah.
Her personal-record time of 1:16.43 was good enough to edge out three-time Olympian Elli Ochowicz for the final spot on the Olympic team.
“I still can’t even believe it happened,” Gunther said in a telephone interview from her home in West Jordan, Utah, after her race. “It might sink in sometime tonight, maybe when I get back into training or it might not hit me until I am in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.”
Gunther, who attended Washington Elementary and Whittier Middle schools in Lorain before moving to Michigan at the age of 13, laced up her first pair of skates at the age of 6 — roller skates at Lorain Skate World. She later tried her hand at figure skating but, in her words, skated too fast for the music.
Gunther then turned her attention back to the skates with wheels, racing on inline skates and eventually winning a gold medal at the Junior World Championships.
At the age of 19, Gunther went back to the ice to concentrate on trying to win Olympic gold but a pair of bad breaks —one figurative and one literal — nearly derailed her dream for good during the 2009-2010 season.
First, Gunther thought she had made the 2010 Olympic team only to have another skater allowed to re-skate after falling in her race and taking that final spot, leaving Gunther as an alternate on the Vancouver team. Later in that season, she suffered the worst break of all, a double compound fracture to her left leg, just above the ankle after crashing in competition. At that point, skating was an afterthought, the immediate concerns of Gunther’s doctors were saving her foot and would she ever be able to walk again.
“After the injury no one knew if I would be able to put on a skate again,” she said. “I had so many questions and not enough answers. It was a long road to recovery. I had to work hard and keep focused, but I knew I had four years to get ready for the next Olympics.”
Months of intensive physical therapy paid off and Gunther was back in competition in December of 2010, nine months after her injury.
“I had tears in my eyes at the starting line in the first race because it was at the same track and I was in the same lane as when the injury occurred,” Gunther said. “I’ve gotten back to where I was before the injury. I get stronger every time I train.”
Training is a fulltime job for Gunther who has two daily training sessions of two to three hours each, six days a week to keep her in shape for competition. Those training sessions could include anything from bike riding, running and cardio training in addition to time on the ice.
Gunther also still has the chance to make the Olympics in the 1,500 meter event. That qualifying race will be run Tuesday. She is part of Team USA’s Essent ISU World Cup 1,500 meter team. In four events this season, her best finish was 11th in November in Astana, Kazakhstan.
She said most people in the skating community feel the 1,500 meter is the toughest event in the sport.
“I’m still trying to learn how to race the 1,500 meter, it is a very difficult event,” Gunther said. “The strategy is totally different. It’s not a sprint but it’s not really a distance race either.”
Gunther also raced in the 3,000 and 500 meter events at the Olympic Trials on Friday and Saturday, finishing seventh in the 500.
Gunther’s brother Brad Sprague and her grandparents still live in Lorain County.
“This has been my dream since I was six years old to go to the Olympics,” she said. “Just to think about what I have overcome to get here. This really means the world to me.”