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Team USA

Coach Ken Eriksen with members of Team USA softball team. Photo by Jade Hewitt from USA Softball

Coached by 1979 Ward Melville High School graduate Ken Eriksen, Team USA softball team ran out of walk-off magic in the gold medal game Tuesday.

After coming from behind to beat Australia, 2-1, and then Japan by the same score in the last two games before the final, Team USA couldn’t rally to beat Japan in the gold medal game, falling 2-0.

Coach Ken Eriksen during practice with Team USA. Photo by Jade Hewitt from USA Softball

Eriksen, who had a successful college baseball career, has extensive softball coaching and playing experience, including as the current head coach of the University of South Florida for over 24 years. He has had several roles with the national team over the years, including as an assistant on the 2004 Olympic team that won gold in Athens. He became head coach of Team USA in 2011.

Members of the local athletic community expressed their admiration for the coach and his involvement at the Olympic games.

“For one of our former student athletes to be coaching on the highest stage possible in the world is something we’re so proud of,” said Kevin Finnerty, athletic director of the Three Village Central School District. Eriksen’s role shows “that our students, through hard work, effort and time can” reach their goals.

Joseph Burger, who has been coaching softball at Ward Melville for seven years, appreciated the connection between Eriksen and the high school.

“When you have a Ward Melville graduate coaching the Olympic team, that sheds a great light on the sport and what we’re trying to do here,” Burger said. “This is very positive for the program.”

Burger appreciated how Team USA showed sportsmanship at the end of the loss, which, he said, reflects well on the coach.

Burger, who posted the Team USA softball schedule on the high school softball team’s Instagram page, said the games set a great example for his players.

The Olympians are “aggressive toward the ball,” he said.

Rising Ward Melville junior third baseman and team captain Alicea Pepitone watched the gold medal game.

“They played their hearts out this whole series in the Olympics,” said Pepitone, who would like to play in college. “They should be proud, even though it didn’t go down the way they wanted it to.”

Pepitone thought it was “awesome” that Coach Eriksen attended Ward Melville. She recalls watching softball in the Olympics in 2008.

“I want to be one of those girls on that field and wearing that jersey,” she said.

Reached by email before the final game, Eriksen responded to TBR’s questions from Tokyo.

TBR: Who were some of your softball mentors growing up in Setauket?

Eriksen: My coaching mentors from Long Island were Russ Cain at Gelinas Junior High School and Coach Everett Hart. They were both tremendous teachers. They both taught the game, and you would never know you were up by 10 or down by 10. They treated and respected the game as it should be … a teaching platform for life.

TBR: Have you emulated any of the coaching patterns you observed as a player?

Eriksen: Most definitely. It’s all about the players’ ability to be prepared for any situation and trust them to react to the situations.

TBR: What is the best advice you received as a player?

Eriksen: Trust your preparation. Less is more.

TBR: Do you use that advice with the players on USA softball? 

Eriksen: Every day.

TBR: Is the sport of softball any different than it was during the age of Jennie Finch?

Eriksen: It’s more competitive worldwide now than it was prior to 2008. You can see that by the competition in the last four World Championships and the 2021 games.

TBR: Does the sport require any different skill sets?

Eriksen: Absolutely as it does comparatively to baseball.

TBR: How is USA softball any different from softball in the rest of the world?

Eriksen: The expectations sometimes are unrealistic in respect of not thinking it’s a global game.

TBR: Does your team or does the program emphasize specific skills that differentiate it from softball in the rest of the world?

Eriksen: Not really. Everyone spends an inordinate amount of time trying to be flawless.

TBR: What is different about coaching and playing?

Eriksen: It was easier to play! Only had to worry about me!

TBR: Have you had to learn different skill sets as a coach than you had as a player?

Eriksen: Obviously when you are dealing as a manager in any organization there is a “human hierarchy of needs” that each player presents to you as a coach. When you have a unit that is together for years, you better understand the people first.

TBR: Was it challenging to coach and play softball without anyone in the stands?

Eriksen: Not really. When you are locked into the moment, all noise is irrelevant in the heads of elite athletes.

TBR: Was the team able to provide the energy and excitement that the crowd might normally offer in the context of a more typical softball game or season?

Eriksen: We bring it every day regardless. That happens when you wear U-S-A on the front of your jersey.

TBR: What’s next after the Olympics?

Eriksen: For me … getting away from the spotlight. Won’t be hard. I love the “game,” but it’s a game. It’s not my whole life. The old saying … “gone fishing.”

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They grew up an ocean, and a few months, apart. They spoke different languages, lived in families of different sizes, and competed at high levels in sports from different seasons.

And yet Huntington Station’s Sgt. Matt Mortensen, a Winter Olympic soldier-athlete with Team USA who competes in the luge, and Alex Duma, a sports chiropractor in New York, have been dating for close to two years.

The world of sports provides common ground for these two 32-year-olds. Duma grew up to become a Romanian women’s national swimming champion and an All-American swimmer.

Mortensen, despite living his early years on the relatively flat terrain of Long Island, dedicated his considerable athletic energy to a sport his father Jerry introduced him to when the company where he worked, Verizon, was sponsoring a luge event.

Mortensen and Duma met when she was on volunteering at Lake Placid Olympic Training Center.

He tried to ask her out for a drink and she turned him down because she didn’t want to consider dating someone she might treat as a patient.

Several months later, however, she relented when she knew he wouldn’t consult her professionally.

Once they started dating in earnest, her experience as an athlete helped prepare her for the travels, the dedication to training — and the competition.

“I understand him really well,” she said. “I’ve been an athlete myself and I do travel with athletes. I understand his lifestyle.”

That lifestyle brings challenges that would be difficult for people who weren’t born some 5,000 miles apart. Indeed, as a member of the Army World Class Athlete Program, Mortensen ventures around the globe routinely, competing in World Cup competitions.

Since he was 12, Mortensen learned most of his middle school and high school lessons from work sent from St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay. He often missed celebrating his December birthday with his family because it fell during the winter luge season.

The time on the road, however, helped him grow up more rapidly and, as it turned out, gave him the opportunity to learn other cultures earlier than many of his American contemporaries.

The months he spent in Europe “helped bridge the cultural gap,” Duma said. It helped him “understand my European culture.”

At the same time, Duma came to the United States when she was 19, so she feels that “a lot of what I am is due to the American culture.”

Duma admires Mortensen’s relentless efforts to improve and compete. She has watched how he continues to work out after the season ends, even when the workouts are not required.

“He’ll go above and beyond the extra step,” she said.

As for their families, Duma grew up as an only child. On another continent, Mortensen grew up with four brothers and two sisters, in a family of nine.

“They are an amazing big family,” Duma said. “I feel so blessed to have been invited to family events,” which include Christmas and Easter.

Duma appreciates the noise, the dogs, little kids and the constant commotion, which is a marked contrast from her life in a small family, where it was “too quiet.”

Borrowing an oft-quoted line from the movie “Jerry Maguire,” Mortensen said Duma “really completes me.”

Mortensen suggested that Duma stay behind and continue to work while he was in PyeongChang. In South Korea, he finished fourth in the luge team relay, a tenth of a second behind the Austrian team for bronze. He wanted her to save up her vacation time so the athletic couple could travel on a planned trip to Hawaii. During the games, the two of them speak by FaceTime and Whatsapp.

Ultimately, what makes the relationship work, Duma said, is that her Olympic boyfriend is “such a good communicator. He’s amazing at that.”

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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.”

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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After placing at nationals, Port Jefferson residents Garrett Thibodeau and Sandi Woodhead earn spots on Team USA

Sandi Woodhead with her Smith Point teammates. Photo by Steven Sobel

By Clayton Collier

Smith Point lifeguards are known as some of the nation’s best. The beach has not had a drowning within the protected area since the beach officially opened in 1959.

Now two of their squad have a chance to prove they are among the best in the world, competing in the International Surf Rescue Challenge in Australia. Lifeguards Sandi Woodhead and Garrett Thibodeau, both Port Jefferson residents, will be among the competitors representing Team USA at the games in September.

“It means everything,” Thibodeau said. “I’m so honored to be able to represent the United States and compete against the best competitors in the world.”

Garrett Thibodeau, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel
Garrett Thibodeau, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel

Both Woodhead and Thibodeau will compete in the beach sprint, taplin relay, rescue race and beach flags events. The pair qualified for the international contest after participating on Smith Point’s team in the 2015 Nautica/Brown and Brown USLA National Lifeguard Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla., this past weekend.

Smith Point, an eight-time national champion, finished second at the national games for small beaches. Individually, Woodhead finished second in beach flags, while Thibodeau came in fifth. Woodhead also came in first place in the landline rescue event.

She was pleased with how she finished.

“I would have liked to have done better, because I always challenge myself,” Woodhead said. “But I am happy with how I performed and I am definitely proud of how well my team did.”

Their coach and longtime teammate, Mike Barrows, said the Port Jefferson pair both performed well but he expects an even better performance from Thibodeau in the future.

“Garrett was a bit disappointed in his performance,” he said. “However, he did not rest [before] USLA nationals and trained right through it. With proper rest, I’m
assured he could have won a national beach flags title. They will both be ready and race really well in Australia.”

Making it to nationals is no easy task. Woodhead said that out of the 98 lifeguards employed at Smith Point, about two dozen are chosen for the competition. Each morning, the lifeguards must run a 5K in soft sand and perform workouts when they are off the tower.

Sandi Woodhead, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel
Sandi Woodhead, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel

“If you show that you are excelling in these workouts, the captains and chiefs will take notice, and bring you if they believe you will do well on a national level against thousands of other ocean lifeguards,” Woodhead said.

Thibodeau, who is in his 13th year competing, said he has noticed an increase in attention to the games. The beach flags finals occurred at 8 p.m. under floodlights before a large crowd and was streamed live online. Thibodeau said the growing interest helps to pump him up before his events.

“While I always take my events seriously, knowing that there’s going to be more people watching heightens the energy level, and I feed off of that,” he said. “Imagine playing any sport in an empty stadium compared to a packed stadium with fans cheering. The level of play is going to rise.”

Open and Youth National teams coordinator Skip Prosser said the growing attention to the sport is the result of the hard work and effort of a number of people.

“Any excitement or progression in the level of popularity of the sport is surely the work of all those who have ever been involved, specifically those individuals who have worked for many years on the promotion of the sport and continue to do so, without any official USLA title,” he said. “It is with great hope that when my appointment ends, that I can look back and say that I made a difference.”

As a result of the increased interest, Thibodeau has noticed a higher level of competition at the events. As he heads off to Australia with Team USA next month, however, he said the international games have always been a monster all their own.

“You don’t have the luxury of warming up and getting into your groove,” he said. “You’re going against the best from the very first run. You need to be on point out of the gate, or you could be out.”