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Meet former American Speed Skater Kelly Gunther

1.What inspired you to start skating? Who inspired you to start skating?

Watching the Olympics when I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be on stage. I can remember sitting in front of the TV watching figure skaters share their story through music and their jumps and spins. And that just inspired me.

And then to be able to show it in front of a crowd, and honestly just be on stage. That’s really what I wanted to do. And I remember sitting there as a little girl thinking that I wanted to be on that stage someday. Granted, I didn’t know exactly what the Olympics were at six years old, much less how to get there, but I remember seeing the Olympic rings and wanting to be a part of that. The very next day, I went to the roller rink and started that journey.

As far as who inspired me, no one ever skated in my family at all. If anything, I maybe got them involved at the local roller rink a little bit. I’m the only one that ever did athletics in my own immediate family. So nobody really inspired me in that way.

2. Did you always dream about competing in the Olympics? Tell me about the experience. What was it like to make it there?

It was really a dream come true for me. The Olympics were my life, and I had kind of given up other aspects of my life to be able to finally live that moment and make it a reality. As a little girl, I had watched every single opening ceremony every two years. Summer and winter. It was so meaningful for me to walk through the opening ceremonies, the same one I’d always watched on TV. It was a dream that became reality. To be able to make it there, I had to know it was something that I loved so much & kind of put my life on hold. As when you love your passion and what you do. You don’t think of that & just go for it!

3. I’d imagine the Olympics come with a lot of pressure to perform and do well. How did you manage that type of pressure?

I was never a medal contender. So for me and my personal journey, the real pressure was really just about me getting to the Olympics, which I did. I was always more of the Comeback Kid and it was huge for me to just be there. So when I finally made it, I was actually able to let myself really just have fun with it and soak it all in.

4. What did you love most about skating?

Really what I love most about it is having the passion that I have for it. That inner drive in me that always kept me motivated to want more of it. It always kept me hungry to keep getting better and faster and stronger. And now that I’ve stepped away from it, I really see how much it’s helped me in life in general. That determination I had found when I was skating, I’m carrying it over in so many other things that I’m doing in life today.

5. One of The Female Lead’s key themes is ‘find strength in setbacks.’ We know you suffered a horrific injury and you needed surgery, rehab, and there were discussions of amputation. How did you overcome this? How did you find strength in that setback?

That’s probably one of my favorite questions to answer, just because of the setbacks that I’ve gone through. I learned to take the negativity that you have in life and change it around to a positive. When the doctors told me that I wasn’t ever going to be able to skate again, especially at the Olympic level, I never let that get to me. I never let that enter my mind. I never took no for an answer. That goes hand in hand with the determination I learned with skating to be faster or stronger, I then just carried that over to my rehab.

I had never been off my skates my entire life more than a day. Ever. Now I was off of them for six months, so I didn’t know what to do. But everything I’d learned from being an athlete and just being on my skates, I carried that over to rehab. So even though it was a setback, and I was knocked off my skates, I put everything I learned into my rehab every single day and knew that I would be stronger and faster.

Once you have so many setbacks in your life, you learn how to deal with them in different ways. I never looked at my injury as a negative and turned it around to a positive and took it head on and had fun with it.

6. What are your tips for overcoming life’s hurdles and keeping a strong mind during/after a set back?

I’ll be the first one to raise my hand and tell you that life is never going to be perfect. It’s not butterflies and rainbows.

You’re going to face challenges. But it is going to be ok. Those challenges will only make you stronger. Find your own personal voice inside of you and connect that with your mind. Don’t listen to the negativity. We’re all human. We all have bad days, that’s completely normal. But don’t let it control you. Let yourself overcome that. If it’s something that you want so badly, you will do everything that you can in your power to get it.

That’s what’s so neat about a setback. People think ‘Oh, she’s not going to be able to come back or she’s not going to be able to do this or that,’ that’s your opportunity to find your inner voice and that determination in you to prove not only to them, but to yourself that you can do it. Even though you may be set back for a day or a month or a year or whatever it is, you can always come out of it. No matter what. No matter how hard it is. If your foot is hanging off your leg, or if your arm is hanging off your body, whatever the scenario is, you can get through it.

7. Who inspires you every day? Or what motivates you to keep trying to succeed at what you do?

I really just want to say myself, I think. I just want to be the best version of myself and give that to others, so they can feed off of what I want to give them. And so they can inspire others. I want to be the biggest inspiration of myself to inspire others.

8. You left the athletic world and spent some time as a paraprofessional at an elementary school. Could you tell us more about what you did there?

I worked with special needs kids with severe disabilities, and those kids completely changed my life. They really made me a different person. They make the best with what they have – even if they can’t talk or whatever their disability is. They don’t let that define them. It really gave me the encouragement to tell my story.

If I was having a bad day or a bad morning, all it took was for me to step into that classroom and see their smiling faces. My job was obviously to help them, but they were helping me. Because they taught me how to live and love with whatever you have. They inspired me to be a better person. And that it’s ok to not be perfect.

I believe there’s a reason for everything, and for me to work at the elementary school when I did, it was the perfect time in my life. I was an athlete for 25 years, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me at the right time, and it was all because of the kids that I worked with.

9. What would you say to someone who is terrified of taking a leap into a new career or industry?

I will be the first one to tell you that it’s never easy. It’s scary. It is a huge leap. A lot of things can go wrong. You may not like it. But you might also love it. You might also be really glad that you did it. My best advice is, even though it’s scary and you’re so unsure of the unknowns, do it. For me, it ended up leading to the best outcome I could have asked for. If you give it a try, you may surprise yourself. It may be the best thing you ever did or it may be the worst thing. But at least you know that you took that leap of faith, and you gave it a fair shot. Always take the risk, because you never know what the outcome is going to be for you.

10. Looking at how far you’ve come and everything you’ve achieved – if you could go back and tell your teenage self something, what would it be?

Just have fun. I missed out on so much because I did something that I was so passionate about. I wouldn’t go back and change that, but I would maybe just tell my teenage self that balance is important. If I wanted to go to the high school dance or whatever it was, I would have told myself to do it. To balance it a little better and give that a fair shot. I definitely would also go back and tell my teenage self to believe in herself a little bit more. I was never the girl that believed in herself, especially as a teenager. I was always the girl with braces on, weird hair color – it was the 90s. But overall, just have fun with it.

Balance everything that you love. Balance is huge and really important for everything that you want in life.

11. What’s next for you?

Right now, I am working on my next chapter. I’m figuring that out for myself. I have meetings set up next week to possibly work with the special Olympics, and for me that’s huge, because I’ve spoken so much about working with kids with severe disabilities.

I’ve also started working as an influencer at a local boutique, where I’m sharing my story as a teenage girl who didn’t believe in herself who learned to believe in herself. I want to be that walking image and that model for youth to show that it is possible to believe in yourself, and I want you to get there too.

It’s been really fun to mix my story with sports and fashion. As that figure skater and girly girl who always loved the hair and make up, 25 years later and a retired skated, I’m still that girly girl who loves the hair and make up. I absolutely love clothes. I may have too many. But it’s so neat to mix my story with things that are important to me outside of the sports world.

So what’s next? Mixing all these things together and helping others along the way.

Main image by Thomas Di Nardo


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