He was so close and then, poof, everything he’d worked for and imagined for 13 years disappeared in an instant.
John Daly, a Smithtown native who hates the cold, was competing in his second winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and was in fourth place, in the hunt for a medal after three of the four legs of his skeleton race.
In skeleton, athletes sprint at top speed hunched over with their hands on the sleds for five seconds, then dive headfirst on the sleds, navigating around the curved icy track by shifting their weight while traveling at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour.
And then, in the fourth race, at the top, where he needed to generate the kind of speed that would allow him to race against his rivals and the clock, Daly’s sled popped out of the grooves in the ice, slowing him down and sending him back to 15th place.
After such a crushing defeat, Daly decided to move on with his life, retiring from a sport where he’d won numerous other medals and where he was one of the country’s best sliders.
For two years, he stayed retired, taking a job in Virginia at medical technology company Smith & Nephew.
Then, a funny thing happened in retirement. Daly missed the sport. He didn’t have the same passion for other parts of his life, the bitter cold from mountains around the world notwithstanding, that he felt when he was racing.
He spoke to numerous people about what he might do.
People his age, he’s 32, could understand the hesitation about throwing himself back into a sport that required physical and mental commitment. To get back into prime condition, Daly would need to make nine hour drives from Virginia, where he was living, up to Lake Placid, a familiar training ground and site of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
People older than he is, however, couldn’t understand the agony of the decision.
“Why wouldn’t you go back?” they asked. When you’re older, they argued, “Do you want to look back and say, ‘I might have gotten a little further ahead at work,’ or do you want to go back for one more Olympic games?”
Unlike other competitions, the Winter Olympics only occur once every four years. And, unlike the World Cup competitions, a global TV audience seems to pause to watch the games.
The Olympics can make the improbable possible, including the unexpected warming of tensions between North and South Korea, who are marching together in the opening ceremony and sending a combined women’s ice hockey team to the games.
As we age, we don’t always spring out of bed the same way and we may lose a step or two in our reaction time. We gain, however, the benefit of each year of life experiences, observing how we, and the world around us, change.
Daly decided to return to the sport, where he has made his third Olympic team. The poet Horace, who published the immortal Latin phrase “carpe diem,” meaning “seize the day,” would be proud.
No one knows how Daly will do in a few weeks. Could he medal? His coach Tuffy Latour thinks so.
Latour said that Daly “never really lost it.”
Sometimes, Latour said, the time away helps athletes better prepare for the next Olympics, allowing them to gain a fresh perspective.
Coming back, however, may prove equally important for Daly, who is hoping to rewrite the final chapter of a sliding odyssey. Many years from now, he hopes he may one day offer the same kind of support to his kids that he received from his parents James and Bennarda, whom he jokingly called “sliding enablers.”
Regardless of the outcome, that older version of himself may thank him for giving it one more try.