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.
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.”