SALT LAKE CITY - Rebekah Bradford was a highly trained athlete. She couldn't figure out why she was out of breath just walking up a flight of stairs.
Turns out, she was suffering from a potentially life-threatening condition.
Bradford was stricken with a pulmonary embolism last year, making her bid to reach the Olympics for a second time especially challenging. She is competing at the U.S. speedskating trials, which begin today in suburban Salt Lake City.
Rebekah Bradford reacts after skating to a first-place finish in the women's 1,000-meter event Dec. 30, 2009, at the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah.
(AP file photo — Steve C. Wilson)
"It's not been the easiest road to get where I wanted to be," Bradford said.
Blood clots developed in her legs and eventually spread to her lungs, making it difficult to complete the simplest of tasks without getting winded. Over the course of six months, her condition kept getting worse and worse, leaving her in such excruciating pain that death seemed like a good option.
"I would never wish that on anyone," Bradford said, remembering her low point in September 2012. "Finally, my husband said, 'Enough's enough. I'm getting you to the (emergency room).' I was curled up on the ground. I couldn't even move. I'm not suicidal or anything, but if I had stopped breathing at that moment, at least I would not have been in any more pain."
The normal recovery period for such a serious ailment is around two years. Of course, Bradford didn't have that long if she wanted to compete at the Sochi Games. She has worked hard to speed up the process and feels she has a legitimate shot to again make the American team.
Bradford will compete for one of four spots in the 500 and 1,000 meters, and she may take a run at the 1,500 if her body feels up to it. It's going to be especially tough to make the team at those distances, which are ruled by two of the top U.S. medal contenders, Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe.
"There are quite a few women on the bubble who can make the team," the 30-year-old Bradford said. "I know there's going to be some girls that have their hearts broken, and I hope it's not me."
She's already overcome so much just to get this far.
A year after competing in Vancouver Olympics, where she finished 29th in the 1,000, Bradford had surgery on both knees, a procedure performed by someone who knows a thing or two about speedskating - Dr. Eric Heiden, the five-time gold medalist from the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
"If I had gone to any other knee surgeon, I probably would not be skating today," she said.
Things were looking up when she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in psychology, then got married in the summer of 2012 to a man she met through an online celebrity dating auction after her first Olympics.
"I'm not a girl who believes in love at first sight," Bradford said, chuckling. "But when he walked through the door, I was like, 'That's the man I'm going to marry.'"
Her now-husband, Eric Prath, helped persuade Bradford to get treated for the blood clots when she stubbornly believed there was nothing seriously wrong. Since then, he has stood by her during the grueling training sessions required to regain her strength and stamina.
"My husband has been a saint through all this," she said. "I feel like I pulled the biggest bait-and-switch of all time on him, and he still loves me."
Ryan Shimabukuro, the coach of the U.S. national sprint team, has worked with Bradford's personal coaches to make sure that she stays focused on where she's going - not where she's been.
"You can't go back and change the past," he said. "All we can do is move forward."
Not surprisingly, there have been some discouraging days.
"Rebekah is very results oriented," Shimabukuro said. "She's always been one who gets distracted when the results are not where she thinks they should be, rather than focusing on the process that will get her that result. That's one of her Achilles' heels."
Bradford feels she is skating faster than ever, and she got a big boost of confidence by posting one of her best training times during a practice session on Christmas Eve.
If nothing else, she hopes to use the experience she went through to spread the word about the dangers of a pulmonary embolism.
"I was blessed. Mine was tiny, like sand, filling up the lungs like an hourglass," Bradford said. "A lot of people have a tight calf muscle and they don't wake up the next morning."