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January 10, 2014

Kelly Gunther overcomes several obstacles to qualify for Sochi games

By Thomas Franz
C & G Sports Writer

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Kelly Gunther overcomes several obstacles to qualify for Sochi games
Kelly Gunther signs autographs for students at Chippewa Valley High School after speaking to an audience of students and teachers in the school's media center.

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — For countless athletes, the Olympic dream remains just that, a dream. Four years of obstacles and a lifetime of adversity would have most certainly made Kelly Gunther just another dreamer.

Last month in Salt Lake City, Gunther gave up her dreams for reality, and she placed fourth in the 1,000-meter event in speed skating at the US Olympic Trials, qualifying her for the Winter Olympics that will be held next month in Sochi, Russia.

Gunther, 26, a graduate of Chippewa Valley High School, finished the race with a personal best time of 1 minute, 16.43 seconds, just .08 seconds ahead of the fifth-place finisher. Until she races in the Olympics, Gunther’s fourth-place finish at the trials is the culmination of an arduous journey that began on the same ice on which she clinched a spot on Team USA last month.

Two months after narrowly missing out on making the 2010 Olympic team, Gunther suffered a compound fracture in her left ankle in a crash during a race at the Utah Olympic Oval.

Two surgeries and a year of rehabilitation allowed her to get back to skating, and that’s when Gunther was able to switch her focus from recovery to qualifying for Sochi.

“Racing my first race since I had fallen, I was racing the 500-meter from the same lane, the same race, same everything, now that was pretty scary. But to overcome it, I came around that corner and just faced it,” Gunther said.

“Facing it and doing what I did just led me to say that I’m going to be OK, and it’s something that I can continue doing and keep fighting for what I want. That’s why I’m here today, because I didn’t let fear hold me down, and I just kept going for it.”

Fighting for what she wants is something that she and her mother, Julie Sprague, have been doing since they moved to Michigan from Ohio when Gunther was 11. At the time, Gunther had already been skating for five years, and Sprague took on two jobs, one of which Gunther helped at, to help support her daughter’s developing skating passion.

“I always call her my best friend because she really is. It’s always been her and I when we moved to Michigan and we had our own little cleaning business together. She’s been my supporter and biggest believer. When I didn’t believe in myself, she always did,” Gunther said.

A note on Gunther’s website states that she currently receives no financial support from the US Olympic Committee to train and compete, so Sprague has spent much of her earnings on her daughter’s career. Recently, Sprague has suffered an injury of her own and has had to go on disability, therefore making a possible trip to Sochi to see her daughter compete financially unfeasible.

That is where Shannon Armstrong, a speech pathologist at Chippewa Valley and longtime mentor to Gunther, came to Gunther’s aid to help organize a fundraising event and to get Gunther’s story out to the community.

“I think her story is like no other. I don’t think that you can find another athlete that’s been through as much as she has and continued to come back, and the aspect of the mental part that she’s been able to overcome as if it never happened,” Armstrong said. “Her ability to get through things is amazing to me, and I think that if everyone could see that and learn from that the world would be a better place.

Armstrong helped organize a fundraising dinner at Mirage Banquet Hall in Clinton Township Jan. 9, and she also put together a rally at the school so students could meet Gunther and hear her story.

For Gunther, being able to raise the necessary funds to get her mother and other close supporters, including Armstrong, to Sochi will be just as big of a thrill as qualifying for the 1,000-meters.

“For her (Sprague) to go to Sochi may be even more exciting for me, because she’s been on this journey since I was 6 years old going to the roller rink, and she’s been on my side at the hospital,” Gunther said. “To be able to talk about it with my brother and Ms. Armstrong, who got me through schooling, if it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if I’d be able to graduate, but I did, and that’s how I’m here.”

In addition to the fundraising event, Gunther has set up a RallyMe website at https://www.rallyme.com/rallies/225 where people can make donations. Her goal is to raise $20,000 by the deadline of Feb. 14. At press time, She has raised 23 percent of her goal on the website.

Call Sports Writer Thomas Franz at (586) 498-1040. Follow him on Twitter @CandGTFranz.

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Thomas Franz at tfranz@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1040.