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John Daly

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Smithtown native John Daly, on left, with fellow Team USA members at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeonchang. Photo by Kendall Wesenberg

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.

John Daly, competing in a different race, finished 16th and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. File photo

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.

John Daly, competing in a previous race, returned to the track after retiring from skeleton racing following the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. File photo

“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.”

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John Daly racing down the slope. Photo from Jonn Daly

Four years ago, Smithtown resident James Daly took his son John aside. The younger Daly had been in position to realize a long-held dream, only to see that dream slip away, as if it, and his sled, had slipped into a nightmare on Russian ice.

Competing in his second Olympics in the fast-paced sport of skeleton racing, John Daly was in fourth place in the Sochi Winter Olympics going into the final run of a four-heat race when his sled popped out of the grooves at the top of the mountain. That slip cost him time he could not afford to lose, sending him down to 15th place, and after the race, into retirement.

John Daly is a professional skeleton racer. Photo from Jonn Daly

Daly’s father grabbed him and said, “What happens to you today will make you the man that you’ll be tomorrow,” the son recalled.

At the moment, Daly barely registered the words, as the agony of defeat was so keen that he walked away from a sport that had helped define his life over the last 13 years.

His retirement, however, only lasted two. Daly wanted to rewrite his Olympic script.

The Smithtown native recently learned that he would represent the United States for a third time at the Winter Olympics, completing a comeback that required him to make marathon nine-hour drives from Virginia, where he’d gotten a job as a sales representative at medical technology company Smith & Nephew, to Lake Placid, where he returned to familiar stomping grounds.

A race official for bobsled and skeleton, the elder Daly continued to trek to the top of snowy and wind-whipped mountains, recognizing in the back of his mind that the middle of his three children might one day return to a sport where competitors sprint with a hand on their sled for five seconds and then dive headfirst onto a brakeless vehicle that can reach speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour.

When he learned his son made the Olympic team that will compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea next month, Daly couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.

“I’ve been telling everybody,” the retired EMS worker for the FDNY said with a laugh, even including random people he meets at the gym.

“When people watch the Olympic games on TV, they see a person from a town they never heard of,” James Daly said. “Now, all of a sudden, they see Smithtown. It’s great.”

The racing Daly, who is now 32, had a long road back to reclaim a spot on the American team. For starters, he had to go back to North America Cup races, the junior circuit of racing.

“Daly never really lost it. It was quite amazing to see.”

— Tuffy Latour

Daly “never really lost it,” said Tuffy Latour, the head coach of the USA skeleton team. “It was quite amazing to see. We were quite pleased.”

In January of last year, Daly earned a gold medal at Salt Lake City and followed that up with a gold and silver at Lake Placid.

Not only was his proud father there to celebrate John’s return, James also put the hardware around his neck.

“He’s been there from the time I went down the mountain the first time,” John said. “He’s always been there and for him to be there again, to put the medal on me for my first race back, it felt right.”

The pair joked while celebrating the first of several America’s Cup medals that the success felt familiar, like Daly was never gone.

At this point, Daly said he feels that the track in South Korea where he will square off against veteran sliders, including his longtime friend and teammate Matt Antoine, plays to his strengths. Latour said the American team is in a similar position preparing for South Korea as it was going into Sochi.

“We had a test of it last year in the World Cup,” the coach said. “The results were similar to what we had [in 2014].”

Latour said it sometimes helps to walk away for a few years and come back refreshed. He highlighted Daly’s experience as an asset in preparation for the 2018 games.

“He has nothing to lose,” said Latour, who appreciates how Daly’s comedic side helps steady his teammates during competition. He said Daly has the same energy he had before he left the race. “It’s great to have him around.”

John Daly, with father James, has had a successful season leading up to the Olympics in North Korea, grabbing gold in Lake Placid last year. Photo from John Daly

Daly said he’s proud to represent the United States. After he retired, he went to the gym, where he’d see people wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of the colleges they’d attended. His sweatshirts read “USA.”

“That USA represents every college,” said Daly. “It’s a good feeling to wear it.”

At the South Korea games, Daly will be without teammate and friend Steve Holcomb, who died last year at 37. Holcomb’s story, including a recovery from an eye disease that made him nearly blind to a gold medal-winning driver of the celebrated Night Train sled, inspired people around the world, as well as his teammates.

As with his fellow bobsled and skeleton racers, Daly will be flying down the mountain in a suit that has Holcomb’s initials on it.

Daly will spend a next few weeks preparing for one more chance in the Olympics.

During the training to get back, Daly said his body and his mind demanded to know why he’s going through this work again.

He told himself: “I’m here to finish my career off the way I’d like.”

Bennarda Daly, who will attend the Olympics with her husband, said the South Korea Olympics will give her son something he didn’t get from the games in Russia.

“In South Korea,” she said, “he will finally get closure.”

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.

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John Daly, center, smiles on the medal podium. Photo from John Daly.

By Daniel Dunaief

This weekend, Smithtown-native John Daly’s comeback to the fast-paced world of skeleton takes an enormous step forward. He will compete against the best in the world as a member of Team USA in Koeningsee, Germany, at the World Championships.

Daly decided near the beginning of the sliding season to attempt a comeback from a sport that had been a staple of his life from 2001 until 2014.

Just to get back to this point, Daly had to earn enough points in the junior circuit to qualify. He set a goal of collecting medals and earning points. He scored three golds and a silver in North American Cup races and then topped that off with a gold and a silver in the Intercontinental Cup in Lake Placid.

Mission accomplished, so far. If he wins a medal either in Germany or in another race the next week in South Korea, the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, Daly will continue his ascent toward claiming a spot on his third Olympic team.

Just six months ago, however, a return to a sport he left in disappointment after a difficult ending in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, wasn’t at the top of his mind.

Daly’s father, James Daly, awards his son with a medal. Photo from John Daly.

When he was going out on dates in Washington, D.C., where he got a job in medical sales for Smith & Nephew, he had a hard time answering questions about what he was passionate about outside of work.

“Nothing got my gears going,” he recalled. “That was when I was like, ‘Maybe I do miss it.’”

At first, Daly, who is now 31, dipped his toe in the water, driving up to his home track of Lake Placid and doing a few trial runs before other sliders raced.

“I came back and I felt like I never left,” Daly said. When he asked himself what was holding him back, he didn’t have a good answer.

Getting back into shape and training required extensive driving, as Daly regularly made a nine-hour trek from Washington up to Lake Placid, home of the 1980 Miracle on Ice U.S. Men’s Hockey Team. He was grateful to his family for supporting him and to his bosses at Smith & Nephew.

During those long drives in the car, he listened to music, made phone calls with his Bluetooth and tried to stretch out. Coming back, he knew the level of effort he needed to achieve to be successful.

“No matter what, every week, I had to be faster and stronger,” he told himself. “You have to know the other guys are doing it.”

While he’s found his groove, the return to the sport hasn’t been a picnic.

“Age has kicked in,” he laughed. He takes ice baths to ease the body aches. Those, he said, can be miserable, particularly on his ankles and toes.

Daly’s parents, James and Bennarda, are happy to see their son return to the sport on his terms. In 2014, Daly was in contention for a medal at the Olympics in Sochi. At the start of his final heat, his sled popped out of the ice grooves, robbing him of precious time he couldn’t possibly make up, turning the final run into one of the most emotionally draining trips of his life.

After the Olympics, he retired, leaving the international sports stage.

“The last time you compete in the Olympics should be your best part of the Games. No matter what, if you win, lose or draw, you want to take in that last run. This is it, this is forever.”
— John Daly

“His world came crashing down,” Jesse Lichtenberg, Daly’s agent at BDA Sports Management said. Lichtenberg said Daly packed everything up in Lake Placid, put it in a box and threw it in the trunk of his car.

However, Lichtenberg and Daly’s family suspected this wasn’t the last chapter in Daly’s sliding career.

Indeed, Daly’s father, who is a retired EMS worker for the New York City Fire Department, continued to be a racing official for USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.

He thought, “Let me wait a couple of years, in case John has second thoughts,” the elder Daly said. “I’m glad I did. It’s so great to officiate a match that my son is in.”

Indeed, when Daly recently won a gold medal, his father got to put the award around his son’s neck.

His father believes Daly benefited from his time away from the sport, especially because it gave him some balance in his life.

“He needed to know he could go out and make a living after skeleton,” he said.

Now that his son is back on the track, he watches and he said his “heart starts to beat faster” as his son waits for a green light that signals the beginning of a race in which he runs for about five seconds before diving, headfirst, onto a sled he steers at over 80 miles an hour around curved, icy tracks.

Bennarda Daly, meanwhile, said she’s “excited and a little anxious” at the same time. “When he returned from Russia, he was different,” she said. “It wasn’t because he didn’t win.” Popping out of the groove kept him from “getting closure.”

Daly’s mom said she noticed that he hadn’t talked about sliding for the last few years, which she said was “odd” for him. “It was like it never happened. He had to close that off.”

Bennarda Daly, who is a nurse, said she doesn’t need her son to win a medal at the World Championships or at the Olympics.

“If he comes out happy and feels like it went well, I’ll be ecstatic,” she said.

As for Daly, he knows, even if he makes the Olympics next year, that he wants to walk away on his own terms.

“The last time you compete in the Olympics should be your best part of the Games,” he said. “No matter what, if you win, lose or draw, you want to take in that last run. This is it, this is forever.”

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28-year-old skeleton racer will go to Sochi, Russia

John Daly competes in the World Cup in Lake Placid in December. Photo by Pat Hendrick

By Daniel Dunaief

Four years ago, he was just happy to be there. Weeks before the world turned its attention to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Smithtown’s John Daly had no idea whether he’d be watching the games from home or representing the country in the high-speed sport of skeleton racing.

Now, Daly, 28, is preparing for his second winter games in Sochi, Russia. He finished 17th in Vancouver and is approaching the competition, which is scheduled for Feb. 14 and 15, with a different attitude.

“I’m confident, I think I could do really well,” Daly said via Skype while in St. Moritz, Switzerland for one of the pre-Olympic qualifying races. “In the last game, I was a long shot. In this one, I’m truly prepared. If ever there was a race to win, it’s this one coming up.”

Daly competes in skeleton racing, where he digs his spiked shoes into an ice track, extends his arm and dives headfirst onto the sled. He races at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour, his chin inches above the frozen track. He steers by shifting his weight slightly, as spectators hear something akin to a freight train seconds before he becomes a bullet blazing down the bluff.

Daly said the four years of training and living have helped him maintain his focus in a race where the difference between a medal and fourth place is measured in hundredths of a second.

Thoughts about the action, the crowd and “how crazy would it be if I medal” may have hurt him in Vancouver.

“That’s when you start to put yourself days and hours ahead. I’m staying in the moment. I will take it one day at a time, one curve at a time.”

Tuffy Latour, the coach of the men’s and women’s skeleton team for the United States, suggested that the focus shouldn’t be on winning medals. Instead, his team needs to have “good starts and good drives” while “believing in themselves.”

As the number of days dwindle until he takes those last deep breaths before diving down the mountain, Daly and his family are preparing for a trip that’s more than 5,200 miles from their home.

His mother, Bennarda, a nurse at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, is thinking about “all the silly little things,” including making sure her husband, James, son, James, daughter, Kristen and sister, Sabina Rezza of Kew Gardens, make their flights.

The designers of the Sochi track originally wanted to make the course among the fastest in the world. A fatal accident in Vancouver, however, caused them to redesign their course, which now includes uphill sections that cut down on a slider’s speed.

“They wanted [the racers] to go to 100 miles per hour,” Daly said. “But they slowed it down to 83 miles per hour.” It makes the track especially unforgiving of any mistakes.

“With those uphill sections, you can’t mess up, or it’ll mess up the race,” Daly said. ‘You don’t want to teach perfection, but you need to be pretty close.”

Still, Daly has a short, but encouraging, history with this track. He placed fourth last February in a test run, a mere seven hundredths of a second behind third place. He also finished ahead of Latvian Tomass Dukurs, one of the two brothers who have been the dominant force in skeleton racing.

This year, Daly said, everyone on Team USA, including his friends Matt Antoine and Kyle Tress, has beaten at least one of the powerful tandem.

“It shows they are human,” Daly said. “It’s anyone’s game.”

Latour is encouraged by the way his competitors have performed.

“The Dukurs are beatable,” he said through an emailed statement. “Our team has had some fantastic races despite some small mistakes. If we’re going to beat those guys, we have to be at our best. I think we can get there.”

Daly said the only one of his entourage who might want a medal more than he does is his father James, a retired EMS worker for the FDNY.

The elder Daly said he’s so eager to see his son succeed because “when his dreams come true, so do mine.”
In addition to safety, Bennarda Daly has another goal for her son.

“If he knows he did his best, that’s all that matters,” she said.

James Daly said the agony of standing near the track, watching his son prepare for a race, is almost unbearable.

“You almost don’t know how to act,” he said. “There’s so much I want to do. Clapping my hands is all I can do.”

Daly’s mom plans to bring a cowbell to the other side of the world. Lining the track like pieces of metal drawn to a magnet, spectators shout encouragement and clang their cowbells, amplifying their sound and warming up their arms on mountains where icy winds seem intent on defeating wool sweaters, socks and hats.

Daly’s family and friends have been instrumental in getting him to Sochi, he said. When he needed money or he had to change a plane ticket, no matter what the hour, his father would get it done. Daly said he hopes he’s as helpful to his children some day.

James Daly said he learned how to support his family from his father, the late Joe Daly, a police officer in New York City.

As for what Daly will do after the Olympics, he’s considering a career in advertising.

“That’ll be my first actual job,” he said.

The trail from frozen tracks all over the world to the white-hot lights of the Winter Olympics has included its share of financial, physical and emotional sacrifices. He said he still has unaffordable college loans from Plattsburgh State University, where he was an All-American in the decathlon in 2007.

He has also bumped into walls during competitions and finished the races with bruises or blood dripping down his ankle.

Each year, he missed important personal events, including his mother’s birthday early in January, Thanksgiving and weddings. He couldn’t attend seven weddings in recent years.

Still, the opportunity to race down a mountain and represent the country is worth the trade-off.

“I get to be a kid and ride a sleigh,” he said. “How many other 28-year-olds can say that?”

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