Kelly Gunther had just rounded the first 100 meters of her 500-meter race when she lost control of her skates. The speedskater was sliding toward the barrier blades first; one skate landed and got stuck in the wall, and the other came down on the boot, slicing the bone just below her left ankle in half.
"I don't remember exactly how it happened, but that's how I can best explain it," Gunther said of the March 2010 accident.
It was a double-compound fracture. There was a lot of blood, as well as the concern that she could go into shock right there at the Utah Olympic Oval. The paramedics started an IV while she was still on the ice, and doctors worked quickly to try to save her foot.
"With an injury that severe, you wonder how the body is going to react and change, and you wonder how the person is going to react and change," Gunther's athletic trainer, Chris Schroer, said. "You knew she was going to be able to skate again, but not at what level."
It's one thing to be fast on the ice; it's another to be the fastest in the world. When Gunther started the long climb back from such a devastating injury, it was only a distant dream she would return to the highest levels of competition.
Yet somehow, her years of relentless training have paid off. The U.S. Olympic speedskating trials begin Dec. 27, and Gunther will be there vying for one of a possible four U.S. slots in Sochi.
"I feel pretty confident," Gunther said. "There's still a lot of work to do; I don't like to say 'I'm in' by any means, but I definitely don't think I'm a long shot."
So how did Gunther do it? The answer is not simple. She moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., to be near the USOC Training Center with its amazing rehabilitation facility and expertise in helping injured athletes get back to top form. She and Schroer worked together every day.
It took six months before Gunther was able to lace up her skates again, after hours of minute exercises like painstakingly picking up marbles with her toes. Afterward, Gunther would thrust her foot into a bucket of ice and try to wiggle the cramps out. Her doctors played down their concern that the bone that had been shorn off by the blade could die, and that she could lose half of her foot.
"The doctor said I'd probably be able to skate again, but not if I'd be able to skate again at my level," Gunther said.
The first year she had screws in her foot, which initially prevented the most basic kind of training, like running. After surgery to have the screws removed, she had to start from square one. That's when the real training began.
By December 2011, Gunther was at the Utah Olympic Oval starting line for her first race back. She saw the turn where she had been injured, the spot where she had been treated first. She started to cry from the sheer weight of her nearly 18-month journey back to the sport.
"I had no idea if I would be able to do it," Gunther said.
By the end of the race, Gunther had some confidence in her ability to return to top competitive form. By 2012, she healed enough to compete on the professional American Cup tour and, a year later, she took first place on that circuit in the 1,000-meter event and started competing internationally.
As Schroer points out, Olympic athletes have just one date in mind after a major injury, and that is to return in time to compete for a spot on the next Olympic team. The timing of an injury can be crucial to that timeline; missing the window means another four-year delay, if not the end of a career.
"Knowing the goal only happens once every four years pushes them a little more," Schroer said.
Gunther can't believe all she has been through, and that she has a chance to reach the Olympics after months and years of rehab.
"It's a pretty good reminder that I'm back on my feet," she said with a pause. "My feet had literally been taken out from under me."