Kelly Gunther (USA)

Ice-Cold Courage: The Inspiring Story of Olympic Speedskater Kelly Gunther

October 8, 2020

Between career setbacks, a gruesome injury and a learning disability, Olympic speedskater Kelly Gunther has learned what it takes to persevere — and now she’s motivating others to do the same

By Jeff Waraniak

Photos courtesy of Kelly Gunther 

The winter of 2010 wasn’t kind to long track speedskater Kelly Gunther. 

In December 2009, she’d narrowly missed qualifying for the Vancouver Olympics by one position. Actually, for a brief window of time, she had made the team, effectively making her childhood dreams come true. But an hour later, another racer was granted a re-skate, usurping Gunther’s coveted spot.

“That was my make-or-break point,” recalls Gunther. “That was where my determination kicked in.”

Olympic Speedskater Kelly Gunther

Just two and a half months later, her determination was tested again. During a 500-meter race at the Olympic Oval in Utah, she slipped — and smashed into a wall, feet first.

When she arrived at the hospital, doctors were afraid to remove her skate — in case her broken foot came with it. Amid conversations about surgery, rehab and possible amputation, they told the still-Olympic hopeful that she’d probably never skate again. 

Between the sting of missing the Olympic team and a career-threatening injury, other skaters might have bowed out. But for Gunther, 33, when the odds are stacked against her, there’s nothing to do but push on. 

The Comeback Kid

Growing up about 30 miles from Cleveland in Lorain, Ohio, Gunther fell in love with in-line skating  (think: indoor rollerblading) when she was 6 years old. She also dabbled in figure skating, but she could never seem to slow down to sync up with the music. Later, she and her mom moved from Ohio to Clinton Township, where Gunther joined an in-line speedskating team and attended Chippewa Valley Schools.

While other kids Gunther’s age were busy studying, Gunther was focused almost exclusively on skating — especially since academics weren’t her forte. “Around kindergarten and first grade, I was diagnosed with a low I.Q.,” she says. “I was always in special education classes, and that was hard for me to accept because I just wanted to be like everybody else, and I wasn’t going to be. I had to work harder.”

Olympic Speedskater Kelly Gunther

With former teacher Georganna Berdy, who’s still a close friend today.

Gunther’s eighth-grade teacher, Georganna Berdy, who has remained close with Gunther and still edits her writing (more on that later), saw how hard Gunther worked to keep up in class. “We were never entirely sure what Kelly’s learning disability was,” says Berdy. “I don’t think she has a low I.Q., otherwise she wouldn’t be able to do what she does. But she does have a written language disability. She really struggles with written language and organizing her thoughts, especially when writing them down.” 

But while Gunther may have struggled with her words in a classroom setting, she never had any trouble articulating her Olympic dreams. “I remember her telling me even back then, ‘I’m going to go to the Olympics,’ ” says Berdy. “She just never saw any barriers. I’ve never met anyone who persevered like her.”

Gunther’s in-line coach, Robb Dunn, who worked with the skater throughout her teenage years, also noticed how determined she was to compete at an elite level. “The word ‘grinder’ comes to mind when I think about Kelly,” he says. “She wasn’t a super-natural athlete, but she was physically strong, she took criticism well, and she was very coachable. She always had to work really hard to get what she wanted.”

Armed with her exceptional work ethic, Gunther still had one giant barrier to face: In-line speedskating, while semi-popular in the U.S., wasn’t — and still isn’t — an Olympic sport. So at age 19, while still living in Michigan, Gunther switched from in-line speedskating to the much larger world of speedskating on ice. A few years later, she was racing in World Cup qualifiers and competing for a spot on the Olympic team — until, of course, she broke her foot.

Olympic Speedskater Kelly Gunther

Even then, though, after a surgery that required a metal plate and 10 screws in her ankle, and about two years of rehabilitation and training, Gunther clawed her way back to the speedskating circuit, with the media dubbing her “The Comeback Kid.”

In 2014, four years after she’d been told she may not walk again — much less skate — Gunther made the Olympic team and skated in Sochi, Russia (where the American squad, as a whole, turned in a disappointing performance).

For Gunther, however, earning a spot on the team at last and joining her fellow Olympians during the opening ceremonies marked the pinnacle of her skating career. “I had watched every Olympic opening ceremony since I was a kid up until I was in one,” she says. “It was surreal. And then to step on the ice, four years after I was walking around on crutches … that was my gold medal moment.” 

Now, several years after achieving her most sought-after milestone, she’s changing speeds again. 

Sharing Her Story

In 2018, while still living in Utah, Gunther officially retired from her professional skating career. She had just missed qualifying for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang (again by just one spot), and could sense that it was time to move on. “I knew that my body was tired,” she says. “I had two back injections and two knee injections just to get to those Olympic trials. It just felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there in 2018.”

With her athletic career behind her, Gunther, who says she would have been a teacher if she hadn’t pursued speedskating, began working as a paraprofessional at a local elementary school in West Valley City, Utah.

Olympic Speedskater Kelly GuntherCourtesy of Kelly Gunther

With special-education students at her alma mater, Chippewa Valley High School in Clinton Township. Had she not become an athlete, Gunther says she would have been a teacher.

From 2018 to 2019, she worked with students with learning disabilities, autism and Down syndrome, many of whom were nonverbal. “Those kids changed my life,” Gunther says. “To them, I wasn’t Kelly the Olympian or Kelly the skater. In the beginning, I could barely even talk to them, but I learned to read their eyes. I could tell what they were thinking and we really connected.”

These days, Gunther is seeking to add even more experiences to her resume. Despite her continued struggle with her learning disability and writing, she’s determined to tell her story through motivational speeches, a blog and — eventually — a book. She recently connected with fellow former Olympian-turned-speaker Sarah Wells to help shape her story.

Pre-pandemic, Gunther had begun speaking at schools, including her alma mater, Chippewa Valley in Clinton Township, as well as several others in Ohio, where she moved in 2019. “I want to share my story to help you get through your story,” she says. “I want to make sure people know that if you want something bad enough, and you work for it, you can get there.”

Like so many students and athletes, Gunther is unsure where the next few months will take her, but she trusts her ability to show up and give it everything she has. “I know that I made the Olympic team because I believed I could,” she says. “I knew that no matter what, the next day, the next race, I was going to give it my best, no matter the outcome. And once you find that, I think you’ll start to believe that you can do anything and everything — in sports, or school, or life.”  

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