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Olympics

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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.”

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The current World Series baseball matchup features two teams that haven’t won a championship in decades. The Cleveland Indians’ last title came in 1948, while the Chicago Cubs, in case anyone hasn’t heard, previously claimed baseball’s top prize in 1908. Let’s take a look at the way things were the last time each of these teams won the World Series.

In 1948, the Indians’ Leroy “Satchel” Paige made his debut on July 9, becoming the first African-American pitcher in the American League. He went 6-1 for the Indians that season, although he pitched to only two batters in the World Series, retiring them both.

The cost of everything was considerably lower, before inflation kicked in. The price for a grandstand ticket at Braves Field, Boston, for the clinching sixth game when the Indians beat the local Braves, 4-2, was $6. The Braves moved later to Milwaukee and then Atlanta.

The cost of a gallon of gas to drive to Braves Field, which is now Nickerson Field on the campus of Boston University, was about 16 cents.

Also in the world of sports, the Olympics returned to the world stage after the 1940 and 1944 games were canceled during World War II. Remarkably, London — the target of repeated bombings during the war, which had ended only three years earlier — hosted the 1948 Olympics.

In other international events, Israel was created, with David Ben-Gurion serving as the first prime minister. In Berlin, after the Soviet Union blocked all ground traffic into West Berlin, the airlift started on June 26, 1948, and didn’t end until Sept. 30, 1949, providing enough supplies to enable West Berlin to remain under the control of the British, French and American governments.

Back on the home front, President Harry Truman dedicated New York International Airport, commonly known as Idlewild Airport and, now, JFK. He hailed the new airport as “the front door” of the United Nations, which was under construction in Manhattan and would be completed in 1952.

Truman, who had become president after FDR died, ran for election against Republican Thomas Dewey. The day after the election, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a banner headline that read, “Dewey defeats Truman.” A beaming Truman held up the paper after he won the election.

Back in 1908, the last year the Cubs won the World Series, the Olympics were held in London for the first time. The games were originally scheduled for Rome, but a Mount Vesuvius eruption in 1906 made a new venue necessary.

The cost of a grandstand ticket at West Side Park, where the Cubs played, was $1.50. The Chicago team wouldn’t move to Wrigley Field until 1916.

A loaf of bread cost about 5 cents, while a gallon of gas, for those who had cars, was some 20 cents. Ford started producing the Model T car that year. The average worker made $200 to $400 per year.

In Europe, Wilbur Wright was dazzling French spectators with demonstrations of his ability to bank turns and fly in circles in an airplane.

The president of the United States was Theodore Roosevelt. He had already indicated he wouldn’t run for re-election after two terms. His successor, William Taft, defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan to win the 1908 election. Women would still have to wait to vote until the 19th Amendment passed on Aug. 18, 1920.

In 1908, the country celebrated its first Mother’s Day on May 10, and in early November the Brooklyn Academy of Music opened.

And those are just some of the highlights of the last years the Cubs and Indians won the World Series.

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On your mark, get set … Wait! I know we’ve never seen an Olympic sprinter or swimmer take off his goggles, stand up from the starter’s block, scratch his chin, shrug his shoulders and walk away. After all, these athletes have spent years preparing for races that sometimes last less time than it takes us to order lunch.

Like it or not, most of us are in races of all kinds. Some of them are positive and can even be necessary, while others may not be as productive. We race against the bully in the playground to prove that we can cross the lawn faster than he can, we race against the car at the other end of the parking lot so we can get the closest spot — and we race to our seats in a movie theater so we don’t miss the previews.

Some of these races clearly offer us an incentive to improve our lives, the lives of those around us or just to make us feel better. Beating the fastest kid on the block may not be something we put on our resumé, but it can give us confidence in other arenas.

Races can be inspirational. Watch any Olympic Games and every media outlet is in search of an incredible story. Witness Wilma Rudolph. She had polio when she was 4, which caused her to have infantile paralysis. Through her recovery, she wore a brace on her leg until she was 9. She went on to become an Olympic track star in 1956 and 1960.

Races can also encourage people to climb out of bed each morning, recognizing the urgency to do important work. Scientists, for example, frequently describe the race to cure cancer and to provide relief from other diseases that destroy our friends and relatives quickly, or slowly take them away from us. The scientific researchers know, without looking at a clock, that people are suffering day and night with limited treatment, which also motivates them to work late at night or through weekends.

Rescue workers, including the police, firefighters and the Coast Guard, race into storms or treacherous conditions to help people. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

With everyone racing to something every day, it’s easy to see how some of those races, particularly the ones with little at stake, seem more like a battle of wills than a race. Do I need to race to the shortest line in the supermarket before that other person, with the same intent look in his eyes? What happens if I lose that race? Am I stuck in this other line for an extra 20 seconds or, gasp, even a minute or more?

When we’re driving, we recognize that an ambulance racing past requires us to get out of the way. That’s not only the law, but it’s also the way we help our society function. When confronted with someone in a spectacular hurry, it’s possible and even likely that the person may be racing against or toward something we can’t see or understand.

And then there are the times when we are racing out to do something that may not, on second thought, be important or even all that helpful. Yes, movement might be positive and, yes, we might benefit from cutting down the time to accomplish something, but might we have found a shorter route or even a different path without all that running around?

If we see our lives as a series of races, maybe we can pick the ones we truly want to run, while also recognizing that we can define a successful race for ourselves.

Many years ago, I attended a press conference before the New York City Marathon. One of the reporters asked a Kenyan athlete, who was likely to finish in the top 10, about winning. The runner, whose pace per mile for more than 26 miles is faster than most people can sprint for a single mile, took his time to answer.

“To finish the race is to win the race,” he said grinning, taking much more time between words than he would between strides the next day.

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We have spent the better part of the last two weeks glued to the television watching extraordinary people perform incredible acts under unimaginable pressure. Maybe we should come up with an Olympic Games for the ordinary person. To enter these games, contestants will have to go through a speed round of sports clichés, to see who can come up with the most trite phrases for any circumstance.

“Yes, I just lost, but I learned a great deal and was proud to be here. I’m going to refocus and redouble my efforts, and come back that much stronger.”

“We just take it one game at a time.”

“I know I’m only 8, but this is what I wanted my whole entire life.”

We can add a contest for would-be reporters. Ordinary people can sit down with athletes and see who can ask either the most inane questions or share superlatives.

“You just won your 18th Olympic gold medal. What’s next? Oh, right, your 19th?”

“That was sensational, spectacular and unbelievable. I’m just wondering what it must be like to be you.”

How about a remote-control Olympics? Let’s see who can change from channel to channel — without switching to movie stations — the longest without hitting a commercial. I pride myself on my ability to watch three shows without seeing too many advertisements, but every so often I flip from one station that’s cut to a commercial to another that’s still in commercial. That’s a remote control error.

How about if we put teenagers in a room and push their endurance? We can have their parents talking to them while they are sending texts, updating their Instagram accounts and using Snapchat. In fact, not only will their parents be talking to them, but they also will have to answer questions about their days. The first one-word answer — “good” for example — disqualifies the contestant.

Teenagers might want to turn that contest around, requiring instead that they only answer in one syllable. The problem with that, though, is that the game might not end until they hit their 20s.

We could also bring in couples who have been together for more than 40 years. We can ask a question and see how long it takes before they finish each other’s sentences. Or, perhaps, we can ask them to tell a story about something that happened early in their relationship and see how long it takes before they argue about the details.

“No, I wasn’t wearing the blue dress. I was wearing the green dress and we weren’t in Philadelphia, we were in Boston; and we weren’t at a park, we were at a movie theater.”

We can invite a group of people who have made an art form out of noticing absolutely everything wrong with others around them. A person can stroll by and the contestants can try to one-up each other’s observations.

“Oh, seriously? She didn’t make eye contact with anyone.”

“Did you notice how she breathed with her mouth open?”

“She wore those shoes? What is she trying to sell, know what I’m saying?”

We could also set up a movie competition, where people quote the most lines from sports movies.

Borrowing from one of my favorite films, “Bull Durham”:

“You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Larry!”

“Lollygaggers!”

This 19th-century word has various meanings, including fooling around, wasting time, dawdling or dallying.

Yes, there’s exceptional speed and there are talented people pushing themselves to extreme levels to defy gravity, each other and the clock. And then there are the rest of  us and maybe, just maybe, there’s the

Lollygagger Olympics.

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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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Comsewogue High School graduate takes silver in skeleton, sets sights on Olympics

Annie O’Shea trains for the skeleton. Photo by Pat Hendrick

By Daniel Dunaief

During the Vancouver Olympics last year, Annie O’Shea was on the outside looking in. Now, she’s much closer to the top looking down.

The change in perspective is a welcome one for the Port Jefferson Station resident, who has been pushing her award-winning athletic gifts to their limits since she started skeleton racing in 2004.

The 24-year-old finished a personal-best seventh place in the first race of the new World Cup season in skeleton in Igls, Austria on Dec. 2. She was a mere 0.02 seconds behind the sixth-place finisher.

The very next week she was in La Plagne, France, a picturesque mountain nestled in the Alps. On a track where she’d never before competed, one that rewarded fast starts, O’Shea said she felt she had an edge over some of the other competitors because of her exceptional sprinting ability.

Skeleton racers use the same long, slick track as luge and bobsled. They sprint for 5 to 6 seconds, then dive headfirst on their sleds. With their chins a mere inch off the ice, skeleton racers fly down the mountain, shifting their body weight to steer their sleds at speeds faster than 80 miles per hour. A powerful sprint near the top can make the difference between a racer and a winner.

O’Shea, a 2004 outdoor track and field state champion in the pentathlon, not only started strong on the unfamiliar track on Dec. 10, but, on her second and final run, set a track record for the sprint part of the course. At the end of the first race, O’Shea was behind only Canada’s Mellisa Hollingsworth. When she’d finished her second heat, O’Shea said, she knew she’d locked up at least second place.

“Standing at the bottom of the track,” O’Shea said from her hotel in Germany after a 10-hour drive to her next competition, “I thought I was going to have a heart attack. One of the German girls said, ‘You might win.’ It’s the best I’ve ever done.”

Hollingsworth also had a strong second run, and held off the Comsewogue High School graduate for the gold. O’Shea’s silver was the first time an American woman had made it to the medal stand of a World Cup event since February 2009.

O’Shea had claimed her first World Cup medal and moved her world ranking up to 4th from 13th in the course of a single week.

“I wanted to call my mom,” she said, beaming. “I wanted someone to give me a phone.” But she couldn’t call home yet. She had another detail to take care of: the medal ceremony.

“As I was standing there, seeing the flag go up for me, I was really happy,” O’Shea said.

By the time she could call her parents, it was still only 7:23 am on Long Island.

“When the phone rang, John and I both went, ‘Uh oh, this is either really good news or something bad happened,” said mom Linda O’Shea, a librarian at Comsewogue High School, about receiving the call from their daughter. “As soon as I heard her voice, I knew.”

After numerous calls and chats over the past few years, when the skeleton racer had cried on the phone with her parents when races didn’t go as well as she’d hoped, she didn’t shed any tears this time.

John O’Shea, who runs a Target warehouse in Hauppauge, said he could tell from a conversation he had with his daughter the day before the race in France that she had the right mindset. “It was a great feeling to get off the phone,” he recalled. “I felt like she’s got this one.”

The racer said she has had to rely on the strength of the O’Shea network, including her parents and three sisters, Kaitlin, Sarah and Erin, through some of the tougher times, when the sledding hasn’t been quite so smooth or fast. She’s often called them at home or emailed them for moral support.

As Annie O’Shea was blazing her way down a French mountain, Erin O’Shea took a break from studying for finals at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Conn., to cheer her sister on through a live web feed of the race. She knew well before her parents that her sister was the second-fastest woman in the skeleton world that day.

Annie O’Shea’s coach, Tuffy Latour, joined the family in congratulating the racer on her strong finish.

“Annie performed like a champion today,” Latour said in an email. “On the line, she was calm, cool and collected. She pushed a track record start and slid two very consistent heats.”

Latour also recognized that the finish in France came on the heels of an impressive run in Austria.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the way she has conducted herself these past two weeks,” he said. “She is really putting all the pieces together this season.”

O’Shea was joined on the medal stand by her teammate, Breckenridge, Colo., resident Katie Uhlaender, giving the North American women a rare sweep of the skeleton medals. Uhlaender was the last American woman to win a skeleton World Cup medal in 2009.

O’Shea offered some advice to those with lofty aspirations: “Never doubt yourself. Never think you can’t do anything. If you can’t do it at that moment, you can learn to do it. You can get better at something every day.”

The O’Sheas, who are fond of holiday tradition and movies, watched the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” the night before the races in France. The racer said her mother will likely watch the movie again the night before her next set of races in Germany — just in case it might have helped.

As for Annie, she’s not only taking her own advice, but she also plans to use this second-place finish in France as a lesson for the bigger goal: an Olympic medal at Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

“After doing so well [on an unfamiliar track], I know [a medal] is possible in Sochi,” O’Shea said. “I can do this.”