By Benjamin Block
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I knew that skeleton was an Olympic event, but that was all I knew. So when my initial research generated results linking the sport with athlete deaths, I was shocked, but intensely curios.
Putting it succinctly, skeleton athletes hurl themselves face first down a narrowly twisting track at 80 mph on a flat sled no longer than 4 feet in length between them and the unforgiving ice.
Competing in skeleton in Pyeongchang, in what will be his third and likely last Olympics, is Smithtown, New York native John Daly.
And just as I had virtually no prior knowledge of skeleton, the same was true of Daly and his remarkable story.
The 32-year-old adrenaline junkie recently summed up to his 8,500-plus Twitter followers — a method that nearly all athletes use to communicate to the masses these days — his circumstances and outlook heading into the 2018 games.
“I thought it was impossible to qualify with a year of training & a full time job. But I’m a dreamer, & I’m proof that you’re never too old to dream a new dream. I am officially a 3xOlympian @TeamUSA,” Daly tweeted out on Jan. 15.
The Long Island-bred skeleton racer who finished 17th in his Olympic debut at the 2010 games in Vancouver, and 15th in Sochi in 2014, is not considered a favorite to medal in Pyeongchang.
But as Daly explained to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press, he is looking for closure this time around more than anything else.
“It’s not unfinished business, but more like an unfinished feeling,” he said. “The fourth run of your Olympics is supposed to be the most fun run of your career. I didn’t get that. I didn’t get that closed feeling, that closed-chapter feeling of my career. And that’s kind of what I want. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Daly is referring to what happened to him in his final race in Sochi four years ago. His first three runs were as pristine as the ice beneath his sled. He was in position to earn a medal. His fourth and final heat, however, was disastrous. Even worse, he suffered his fate at the start.
His sled popped out of the grooves at the top of the track, immediately stripping him of the control and speed that he desperately needed. As a result, he toppled out of third place, finishing 15th.
“I couldn’t go out like that,” said Daly, who feels that way now. But, immediately following the 2014 games, he dealt with the pain by suppressing and ignoring it.
After Sochi, and electing to cut himself off completely from all things skeleton, Daly relocated from New York to Washington DC. There he threw himself into medical sales, and was enjoying a new life. Then an interaction with a blind date inadvertently opened up old wounds.
Daly had been navigating all the awkward “get to know you” questions that come with a first date, when the woman he was sharing drinks with asked him, “What are you passionate about?”
“Nothing,” he recalled was his reply.
The conversation had moved along, but his answer marinated, and he realized that a nerve had been touched. Memories had been jogged, and passions he thought were dead and gone had been awakened.
In the spring of 2016 Daly’s USA teammate, Matt Antoine, who won bronze in Sochi and benefited from Daly’s misfortune, recalled a conversation between the two.
As reported by Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, Antoine could sense that Daly was getting the itch to race again.
“He just realized skeleton was something that he loved. It kind of made him feel alive,” Antoine said. “He just wasn’t getting that aspect outside the sport, even though he loved his job and was doing well at it. He kind of seemed like he was lacking a little excitement.”
With the blessing of Smith & Nephew — the medical sales company that Daly has been working for — he began training at nights and attending World Cup events on weekends.
According to USA Skeleton coach Tuffy Latour, it was the planned hush-hush trip up to Lake Placid that convinced him that Daly could still slide at a world-class level.
“He was flying downhill,” Latour said about witnessing the test run. “That sparked the interest. He [Daly] felt, ‘I love this sport.’ ”
Maybe it’s because Olympic athletes compete every four years, and their disappointments are magnified as a result, but Daly’s shot at redemption is certainly compelling.
In a way, Daly has already won. He’s been able to confront himself and come to terms with the mishap, and not let that be the last memory of a sport that he has worked at, and sacrificed for, since he was 12 years old.
However, a medal this time around wouldn’t be the vindication he seeks. That’s not his driving force. Daly simply wants to find out how good he can be when he’s at his best against the best in the world. Because that is what he was denied in Sochi. Not the medal.
But supposing Daly puts himself in a position to medal before his final run once again, the reality of history repeating itself would be too much handle, he acknowledges.
“If it happens again, I still have not come up with an answer,” he said. “That would be a tough one to live with. That part, if it happens again like that, that might break me.”
Follow Ben on Twitter at @benjaminblock21