By Daniel Dunaief
The third time proved that Smithtown’s John Daly could pick himself up, dust off and start all over again.
An Olympic skeleton racer, Daly had walked away from the sport he loved after a crushing ending to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Daly had been within striking distance of a coveted medal before the fourth and final race. That’s when his sled popped out of the groove at the starting line, sending him back from fourth place to 15th.
Distraught over the mistake, Daly retired from the sport, got a job and moved on with his life.
Or so he thought. The red-haired kid, as some of his friends described him years ago, returned to skeleton two years ago, despite a job with medical technology company Smith & Nephew that required him to drive nine hours from Virginia to Lake Placid to train.
Over the last two years, he has fought to make it onto his third Olympic team, a feat he accomplished in January.
Daly joined his longtime friend and teammate Matt Antoine, representing the United States at Pyeongchang.
They went head to head against a talented South Korean slider named Yung Sung-bin, who was competing on his home track. The local South Korean hero won gold in convincing fashion, while Antoine and Daly finished 11th and 16th, respectively.
Despite the finish Daly was pleased that the final chapter in his Olympic experience didn’t end at Sochi.
“I got to do four runs, lift my head up at the end, hold it high, walk off the line and wave to my family,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “That’s something I didn’t get four years ago.”
“I got to do four runs, lift my head up at the end, hold it high, walk off the line and wave to my family.”
— John Daly
Indeed, his parents Bennarda and James Daly, who trekked to Vancouver to cheer him on in 2010 and journeyed to Sochi in 2014, also supported their son in person in Pyeongchang.
“It was fun to see him happy,” his mother said. “He had a good time.”
Realistically, she said her son recognized that the odds were stacked against him in South Korea, in part because he hadn’t spent the previous four years preparing for this event, the way his competitors had.
“He was content with the way he slid,” she said. He had a couple of hits to the wall, which rob sliders, as skeleton racers are called, of critical speed. Still, he “ended on a good note and that made us all feel good.”
Daly said her son believed he had run away and hid after the Sochi games, as though he had done something wrong. He realized that wasn’t the right way to handle the mistake at the top of the Russian track.
“He came back to get closure for that race,” she said.
James Daly felt this was the best of the three Olympic games, because his son was glowing.
“He came and did what he wanted to do, and he didn’t get hurt,” Daly said of his son. “It’s all about the experience.”
“It was fun to see him happy. He had a good time.”
— Bennarda Daly
Bennarda Daly not only enjoyed watching her son rewrite his Olympic script, but she also had the chance to spend quality time with him and with her husband.
They attended speed skating events, where the Daly team cheered for fellow Americans.
The family walked around the Olympic village with outfits that have the letters USA on them, and although concerned that people might be hostile, especially in light of the ongoing tension in Asia, the atmosphere was high-spirited.
“Everyone was polite and kind” Bennarda Daly said. The hosts “went out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable.”
She was also especially pleased that her son was able to enjoy the final chapter of a long Olympic ride.
“Just to see John enjoy the village as a spectator, to go and see other people he’d met along the way and became friends with and to go to things with him was really good,” she said.
As for Daly’s skeleton future, Bennarda Daly believes her 32-year old son is truly done.
“He feels he’s gotten what he needed,” she said. “He seemed fulfilled.”
Looking back on the Olympic and athletic experiences, James Daly appreciated the journey his son took, and the places the family visited as a result.
“If it wasn’t for John, we wouldn’t have done the traveling we did,” the elder Daly said.
Daly witnessed firsthand how hard his son had to work to attend competitions.
A racing official for the sport of skeleton, James Daly enjoyed the contact he had with competitors and their families.
“You meet people from all over the country and the world,” he said. “It’s been a great experience. Each country sends their best.”
The elder Daly suggested that families angling to make future games need to recognize the roller coaster ride along the way.
“It’s not all glory,” he said. “You have to prepare yourself for the best and the worst. You could think of every kind of scenario that could happen, and then something else would happen.”
While the family traveled far and wide to frigid mountains, Daly said the bone-chilling cold disappeared each time his son hit the track.
“When he gets up there, there’s no more cold,” he said. “It’s just fun. That’s what you came for. You realize, if he could do that and get through that, he can get through anything.”