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Skeleton

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Kimberly Lindeman and John Daly

John Daly doesn’t sit still for long.

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

Known for flying down winding tracks around the world at over 80 miles per hour with his head inches above the ice, Daly continued to move his life forward, even during the pandemic.

The 35-year-old Daly, who has competed in three Olympics and has retired twice, launched his second comeback, hoping to make the United States team that will travel to Beijing for next year’s winter games.

At the same time, Daly took a big step in his own life, getting engaged to Kimberly Lindeman, who is also a graduate of Smithtown High School.

Daly felt the same passion to race down mountains at breakneck speed, banking impossible turns as hoarse spectators urged him on and family and friends shook cowbells at the top of frozen mountains as he did when he first started racing almost two decades ago.

“If you still have the chance to compete, why not?” Daly said. “The drive is there. The passion is there. My life is great, but there’s nothing like another Olympic games.”

Indeed, Daly had a promising start to his second return to skeleton several months ago, when he placed first in Lake Placid at the USA skeleton selection races in November, earning a spot on yet another national team.

Daly “came in with no expectations of how he was going to do and just to see if he still had it,” USA Skeleton Head Coach Tuffy Latour said from Austria, where the team was preparing to compete in a World Cup event. “Apparently, he does, as he finished first in our team trials and put on a great performance. His sliding is as good, if not better, than I’ve ever seen him.”

Latour, who has led the American skeleton effort since the 2010 season, said he is pleased to have Daly compete for a spot on the Olympic Team.

“I’m sure [Daly] is going to build on all the skills and knowledge he’s built over the years,” Latour said. “He’ll put that to good use.”

Daly plans to compete in several races this year and next fall, where he hopes to score enough points to earn a chance for the nomination for selection as USA1 or USA2 next January 16th.

A talented sprinter who tapped into the kind of sprinter’s speed at the top of the race that is critical to success in the sport, Daly placed 17th in his first Olympics in 2010.

It was the 2014 competition that continues to play out in his mind and, in some ways, to drive him back to the mountains of the world, despite his antipathy for the cold, an irony not lost on him.

“I wish I was better at something else,” Daly said. “My hate for the cold is still there and strong. It hasn’t gotten any better. I just learned how to deal with it.”

“My hate for the cold is still there and strong. It hasn’t gotten any better. I just learned how to deal with it.”

— John Daly

On Feb. 15, 2014, a day Daly describes as the “worst of his life,” he was in prime position to earn that elusive Olympic medal, as he approached the top of the fourth and final heat in Sochi, Russia.

As Daly took those first explosive steps onto the ice, his sled popped out of the grooves, leaving him with a botched start that robbed him of his dream.

“I was literally 55 seconds away from getting that moment and it never happened,” Daly said. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t ever go away.”

Latour recalls that day as well, agonizing over how one of his American competitors missed out on a medal even as Daly’s long-time friend and now member of the coaching staff, Matt Antoine, earned a bronze that day.

“It was heartbreaking for me,” Latour said. “I’m certain it inspired him to come back for 2018 and now 2022. Everybody is chasing a medal. I don’t blame him one bit for coming back out and giving it another shot.”

As a 35-year-old, Daly recognizes that he has to plan his training and performing regimen appropriately.

“Training is still intense, but it’s less often,” Daly said. “I can’t go 15 rounds anymore. I don’t need to be great for the whole season: I just have to be great at the end of the season” when he feels he needs to be at the top of his game to ensure the best racing results.

This year, as Daly prepares for a possible spot on his fourth Olympic team, he and his teammates have a new way to prepare for competitions. The skeleton and bobsled team has a new ice push facility at Mt. Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, which is the first indoor ice push facility in the United States.

The center simulates the first 65 meters of a skeleton run, with a flat 25 meters and then a downhill section, which comes back up again. The center has three starting blocks and allows competitors to push on ice through the summer months, when they might otherwise train on dry land and lift weights.

Latour said the track in Beijing is “probably easy to get down, but is hard to produce a fast time.”

When Daly, who works as an account executive at medical device maker BardyDX, was trying to decide whether to return to the sport, he consulted with Lindeman.

“It was her idea for me to go back as well,” Daly said.

Lindeman suggested to Daly that his nephews and niece would see their uncle competing for a spot on the Olympic team, which would be “so special” for them.

John Daly and Kimberly Lindeman

Love During the Pandemic

Daly and Lindeman knew of each other in high school. Lindeman and Daly’s sister Kristen, who are two years younger than John, were friends in high school.

The couple connected in December of 2019, when Lindeman moved not far from Daly in Brooklyn. On their first date, which was Dec. 12, Lindeman wasn’t even aware that it was a date. She thought they might be hanging out as friends.

Originally, the pair planned to go out for drinks, but that turned into dinner and drinks. The date lasted over seven hours and would have likely continued except that the bartender announced last call.

“That’s a testament to how good of a time we were having,” Lindeman said.

Daly said he was “hooked” after that first evening.

The next two dates were similar, with the pair staying out late into the night.

Just under three months from the start of their relationship, Lindeman and her father Bill, who share a birthday in the early part of March, had a large family birthday gathering.

Daly had met one of Lindeman’s two sisters and Lindeman figured she might as well “rip the band aid” and allow him to meet everyone else at the same time.

The evening went well for her suitor, as “everyone loved him. They thought he was wonderful.”

Indeed, just a few weeks later, the pandemic hit and Daly and Lindeman decided to quarantine together.

Her mom Valerie, who also grew up in Smithtown, and her father, who owned an insurance agency in Smithtown for 25 years, appreciated that their oldest of three daughters had company during this period of isolation, especially since then knew of Daly and his family.

Quarantining with Daly “accelerated our relationship so much,” Lindeman said. During the pandemic, the concentrated time together would either cause the relationship to meet its demise or to solidify their bond, Lindeman said.

Lindeman appreciated Daly’s ability to maintain a positive mindset and stay optimistic despite the challenging environment around them.

“We balance each other well,” Lindeman said. Daly “keeps my spirits up.”

“We were on the same page with all the important topics. I knew very early on that I had something extremely special.”

— Kimberly Lindeman

During their time in isolation, they did considerable cooking together. They also took drives and went hiking, as long as the weather wasn’t too cold. Lindeman also doesn’t appreciate the cold.

They also enjoyed Netflix marathons, watching “Tiger King,” “Love is Blind,” and “The Office,” which they rewatched several times.

During all the challenges of the pandemic, Lindeman and Daly said they appreciated the connection they had forged and the opportunity to spend time together.

“We tried to enjoy the time we had together,” Lindeman said. “A lot of new relationships didn’t have that.”

On Saturday, Jan. 15, just over 15 months since they started dating, Daly had put on a suit and said they were planning to go to one of her favorite restaurants.

Lindeman was worried he’d be cold sitting outside in his suit. Once she was ready to go, he brought her a video that he said she had to watch alone. The video, which she viewed alone in the bedroom behind a closed door, included scenes from their time together, with some videos she didn’t know he had recorded, including the two of them dancing in the kitchen.

After she finished the video, she opened the door and Daly had lit candles down the entire hallway. Daly said he knew Lindeman was unaware of his plans because she didn’t get her nails done.

After he proposed, Daly told Lindeman they weren’t eating out because they were going to celebrate, in a socially distanced way, with both of their parents and siblings. He assured her that he had rebooked a dinner reservation for the next Tuesday.

Lindeman said she wasn’t completely surprised, despite her lack of a manicure, because she and Daly joke that every month during a pandemic is like three-and-a-half months in a normal year.

“We both had a lot of life experience and we had a lot of those conversations about what we wanted out of life and was important upfront,” she said. “We were on the same page with all the important topics. I knew very early on that I had something extremely special. I knew whatever happened, good or bad, that I had him and we’d figure it out together and we were a team.”

As he prepares for the possibility of rejoining the Olympic team, Daly hopes the fourth time brings a long-awaited and hard-earned redemption on the ice from 2014, when he was less than a minute from his athletic dream.

Displaying the optimism and the perspective that appealed to his fiancée, , Daly recognizes that he’s been incredibly fortunate if his worst day includes missing out on Olympic hardware.

“If the worst thing that’s happened to me is that I went to my second Olympics and screwed up,” said Daly, “I’ve had a darned good life.”

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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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Annie O’Shea jets down the World Championship track. Photo from the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation

She traveled thousands of miles to the same cold, unforgiving mountains in Europe, Canada and the United States. Small mistakes on ice tracks around the world had robbed her of precious tenths and even hundredths of a second. Not this year though, and not for this new Annie O’Shea.

Annie O’Shea goofs around with friends Kendall Wesenberg, Matt Antoine and Nathan Crumpton. Photo from Annie O’Shea
Annie O’Shea goofs around with friends Kendall Wesenberg, Matt Antoine and Nathan Crumpton. Photo from Annie O’Shea

The Port Jefferson Station native and standout track and field graduate from Comsewogue High School, where her mother Linda works in the district office, spent a dozen years training, racing and demanding more every year in the high speed sport of skeleton racing to get to where she is now.

This year, on the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation World Cup circuit, O’Shea finally turned tears of anguish into tears of jubilation — finishing no worse than sixth in each of her last six competitions and, in the process, winning precious medals.

“I’ve had some good races here and decent races there in the past, but I’ve never been able to do it more than once or keep the momentum going,” O’Shea said. The positive energy that helped her generate a breakthrough season has created a “great feeling” for O’Shea.

Her run started on her home track of Lake Placid, site of the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympics, where she often felt pressure to do well. In the second week of January, she sprinted past a cacophony of cowbells and encouraging shouts from a supportive crowd for about five seconds, dove headfirst on her sled and earned her first World Cup gold medal. Her performance easily surpassed her ninth-place finish on the same track a year earlier.

Annie O’Shea competes at the World Championship in Igls, Austria. Photo from the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation
Annie O’Shea competes at the World Championship in Igls, Austria. Photo from the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation

From there, it was off to Park City, where she came in fourth, narrowly missing a medal. Undeterred, O’Shea trekked to Whistler, Canada where she collected the second silver medal of her career. She won her first silver World Cup medal four years earlier in La Plagne, France.

O’Shea ended the season in fourth place overall, a mere seven points away from third. She also finished the World Championship race in Igls, Austria, which includes four different heats, in fifth place, a personal best.

“It’s been many, many, many years coming,” O’Shea said. “This is worlds different from how last year ended. I feel like a different person in a really good way.”

She attributes much of her successful season to developments that started last summer, when she started working with a life coach.

Brett Willmott, her conditioning coach and the associate Head Track and Field Coach at the University of Vermont, said O’Shea took important steps last summer not just mentally, but physically as well.

“When she finished the season last year, she was beaten up a little bit,” he said. “Things didn’t go the way she wanted. She had a foot-down moment” where she addressed her challenges head on. By June, the “workouts were going better than they were before.”

Annie O’Shea, second from right, poses for a photo with fellow athletes and friends. Photo from Annie O’Shea
Annie O’Shea, second from right, poses for a photo with fellow athletes and friends. Photo from Annie O’Shea

During the season, she also bought into head coach Tuffy Latour’s philosophy of believing in the process. She has also bonded with a close-knit group of teammates, including rookie Kendall Wesenberg and men’s sliders Matt Antoine and Nathan Crumpton.

“She did all the right things and put everything together at the right time,” said Latour. “I push on all the athletes to believe in one step at a time and to minimize their distractions.”

Latour said athletes are sometimes their own worst enemies, especially when they are so focused on results that they forget about all the little adjustments they need to make to succeed.

Latour suggested that O’Shea has turned a corner, and become a “real team leader.”

O’Shea said she’s stopped paying attention to the clock and concentrated on staying in the moment.

“I focus on what’s right in front of me and not what’s behind me or four corners ahead, because I didn’t get there yet,” she said.

O’Shea’s mother recalls all the times she took her daughter to practices for Empire State games. In the last dozen years, she and her husband John made the six-hour trek up to Lake Placid to watch their daughter live as she flew by overhead on the track. When O’Shea competes in Europe, her mom gets up at 3:30 in the morning to watch her.

“When she’s finished with a race, I can always tell whether she’s happy or not,” Linda O’Shea said. The time she spent supporting her daughter is time she “wouldn’t give back for anything.”

The 28-year old skeleton racer said she knows her family is always watchimg her and appreciates their support, particularly during the years when everything didn’t come together the way it did this year.

“My mom and dad and sisters all reminded me of how proud of they are of me,” O’Shea said. Hearing how happy they are with her success this year “makes me feel like [the medals are] not just for me. It’s for all of us.”

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Skeleton racer nabs first place in 2016 IBSF World Cup race in Lake Placid

Annie O'Shea, of Port Jefferson Station, practiced for the World Cup skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY earlier this week. O'Shea won her first World Cup gold medal in the event on Jan. 8 Photo by Pat Hendrick

On her home track in Lake Placid, Port Jefferson Station’s Annie O’Shea won her first gold medal in a World Cup skeleton race.

O’Shea scored a combined time of 1 minute, 50.34 seconds, beating out Switzerland’s Marina Gilardoni by 0.09 seconds for the top spot. O’Shea slid down the track in a time of 55.26 seconds in her first heat, which was good enough for third place, a tenth of a second behind the leaders. She followed that up with a time of 55.08 seconds in her second run, tying a track record.

Annie O'Shea, who graduated from Comsewogue, recently won her first World Cup gold medal in a skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY. Photo from the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.
Annie O’Shea, who graduated from Comsewogue, recently won her first World Cup gold medal in a skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY. Photo from the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.

“I wanted this for so long,” O’Shea said. “Everything I’ve done these past 10 year — to become better and work on myself and the process, has paid off.”

After her second run at the 2016 International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation World Cup event on Jan. 8, O’Shea stood at the bottom of the mountain watching as the only two racers who could beat her time took their turns. When she saw that she’d won, her jaw dropped as she leaped in the air before hugging her assistant scouting coach, Zach Lund.

“I started crying at the bottom and I couldn’t stop,” she said. After the awards ceremony, O’Shea stopped to sign autographs for young fans.

The Port Jefferson Station athlete, who graduated from Comsewogue and was a 2004 outdoor track and field state champion in the pentathlon when she attended SUNY Plattsburgh, had been ranked 11th in the world coming into this World Cup event in Lake Placid, which is home to the “Miracle on Ice” USA men’s ice hockey team that won a gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

O’Shea said she appreciates the consistent support from her family, friends and community.

“It’s nice to feel when you go home that people kind of have a place for you or are cheering for you,” she said.

O’Shea had previously won a silver medal in December of 2011 in La Plagne, France. This, however, is her first gold at this level of competition.

Tuffy Latour, the head coach of the skeleton team, said O’Shea has been building towards this moment for several years, and has come on strong this year.

“Her potential [has been] through the roof,” Latour said. “It was kind of story book for her. She [was in] third and then put down a very fast heat.”

Port Jefferson Station's Annie O'Shea, center, claimed a first-place finish behind Marina Gilardoni from Switzerland, left, and Laura Deas from Great Britain, right, in the World Cup skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY. Photo from Amanda Bird
Port Jefferson Station’s Annie O’Shea, center, claimed a first-place finish behind Marina Gilardoni from Switzerland, left, and Laura Deas from Great Britain, right, in the World Cup skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY. Photo from Amanda Bird

Her mother, Linda, watched the race at her desk in the Comsewogue School District’s district office. She said she jumped out of her seat and cheered with one of her colleagues who watched the finish with her, drawing a crowd of people to her desk, who were quick to share I the excitement.

“I’m so proud of her,” Linda O’Shea said. “It’s the perfect start to a new year.”

Competitors in skeleton use the same curved ice track as racers in luge and bobsled. Bent over and holding onto the sides of their sleds, they sprint for five to six seconds, then dive headfirst onto their sleds. Clad in aerodynamic suits, they slide down the track at speeds of over 80 miles per hour, banking through turns with slight shifts of their body weight.

The next World Cup skeleton race will take place in Park City, Utah on Jan. 15th and 16th. The World Cup races are the second-largest events in the sport behind the Olympics. The skeleton team is currently preparing for the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Sketch from SCPD

Police have released a sketch of the woman whose skeletal remains were found near a stretch of the Greenway Trail earlier this year, and are asking for the public’s help to identify her.

The human remains were found on March 22 around 4 p.m., near a stretch of the 3.5-mile hiking and biking trail — which connects Setauket and Port Jefferson Station — off of Gnarled Hollow Road. At the time, police could not confirm whether the person was a male or female and had not determined a cause of death. But the Suffolk County Police Department said Aug. 4 that the deceased was a woman, believed to have been white or Hispanic and between 30 and 50 years old. She was between 5 feet 3 inches and 5 feet 9 inches tall and had poor dental work, police said.

Police, asking for help to identify her, said her remains are believed to have been at the location for about a year.

Anyone with information is asked to call homicide detectives at 631-852-6392, or to anonymously call Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS.

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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.”