SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - American speedskater Kelly Gunther battled back to competition after nearly having her foot amputated four years ago, so a lack of cash was never going to stop her realizing her Olympic ambitions.
Two months after being told she was on and then controversially off the team for the Vancouver Games in 2010, Gunther’s career looked to be over.
She shattered her ankle by crashing into a wall at a 500 meter race in Salt Lake City and worried doctors held back on telling her the possible outcomes after a compound fracture.
“They didn’t tell me actually until a year later that it could have been amputated,” Gunther told Reuters in an interview in Sochi on Thursday after training at the Adler Arena.
”Just knowing that it really was that bad and what I went through was something crazy. I still can’t look at the pictures myself. My doctor, who did the surgery, still has them on his cell phone because he said ‘I have seen nothing like that’.
“I’ve glimpsed at them. I have a look for a second or two but that’s all, I can‘t, it just kind of weirds me out.”
Ten pins, a plate, operations aplenty and months of life on crutches followed during a protracted rehabilitation period.
Dark days inevitably occurred with amputation still not ruled out.
“After a year we took that (pins and plate) out and that’s when they were going to find out if the bone was going to die. If the bone would have died they would have amputated it,” she said, her voice quivering with emotion.
”Luckily it was fine and they took all the hardware out.
“Then I had to learn how to use the ankle without any of the hardware. It’s been a two-year process with rehab.”
Gunther returned to the ice with the dream of becoming an Olympian that led her to ditch a successful inline skating career undimmed by the harrowing processes.
She returned to the scene of the crime, fought back the tears and completed the final stage of the rehabilitation - handling the corner where she fell.
“I faced the accident every day and I remember going to the line for my first race ever since I had fallen and I sort of balled on the line and the gun goes off and you have to go, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go,” the 26-year-old said.
”But inside I‘m a racer, a fighter, a chaser, so the gun goes off and I have to go and I was actually in the same lane that I had fallen.
“So to go around the corner was something I had to prove to myself that I could keep going. Because if I was to stop then, it could have been over. I had to do it.”
The mental block banished, Gunther, from Lorain, Ohio, saw results improve and booked a place on the lauded U.S. long track team for Sochi.
But inevitably for someone who has had to deal with so much, another obstacle stood in her path - money. $30,000 to be exact.
The fighting spirit re-emerged: T-shirts were sold, motivational speeches were conducted and the money was raised. So much money that there was enough to pay for her mum and old coach to fly to Russia to support and assist her.
”Its been a long road. My mum and I, it’s always been her and I... and she was never going to not let me live my dreams. So once I knew I had made the team, we brain-stormed and had some fundraisers.
“We needed about $30,000 just to be able to come, the tickets are crazy expensive, but she is actually en route she should be landing anytime.”
A medal looks beyond Gunther with the strength of the field in the 500, 1000 and 1500m, but few will discard her chances after she showed such determination to become an Olympian.
Her future post-Sochi also remains up in the air. Unsurprisingly she isn’t worried though, and is instead just struggling to contain the excitement of featuring at Friday’s opening ceremony.
“I don’t know yet,” she said about life after the Olympics. “I‘m going to take some time to breathe for a little bit, then I think I will worry about it then and see where the road goes and what happens with sponsorships, but whatever.”
Reporting by Patrick Johnston; editing by Toby Davis