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skeleton racer

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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.”