Six months after the Vancouver Games and John Daly, Smithtown's Olympian in the skeleton race, is taking a break – for now.
He's nearing the end of a two-month respite before his training, and then a new season of competition, resumes. So in case you thought the 2010 Olympics were the peak of some fleeting, pre-professional jaunt for Daly, think again: Skeleton has become his life. Over the next four years, he hopes to make the World Cup team every year, to win a World Cup title and a world championship and to be on the 2014 Olympic team in Sochi, Russia.
Even the off-season, which is sustained by stipends from the U.S. Olympic Committee, won't let him get away from the sport. He speaks on the phone from England as he visits his girlfriend, Emma Heath, who slides for Great Britain.
Daly, 25, met her nearly two years ago at the 2008 Europa Cup in Winterberg, Germany, where he teasingly touts the positive influence his greater experience had on Heath, the near-rookie. Daly is not exactly a veteran of the sport, whose American men's Olympic team also consisted of greats like 38-year-old Eric Bernotas and 31-year-old Zach Lund.
Daly, who finished 17th, has only been sliding since 2001. He owes his start to Len Carolan, his gym teacher at whose son was on the Olympic luge candidate team. Carolan noticed extensive similarities between his son's tests and the presidential fitness test prescribed to middle school gym students. Daly aced the presidential exam and so Carolan encouraged him to give luge a shot.
The epiphany came when Daly was in ninth grade and saw skeleton, effectively a head-first version of luge, performed at Lake Placid.
"The sprint in the beginning – I had done track all these years – [and] the head-first thing got me," Daly said. "It looked more natural, honestly."
The rest of the story evolved quickly: graduation from Smithtown in 2003, an All-American decathlete, graduation from SUNY Plattsburgh in 2008, America's Cup and European Cup wins later that year, a discovery that "I can actually do this," and a stunning victory at the 2009 National Team Trials. Daly had jumped from Olympic non-contender to the top-ranked American slider.
The big call came in January 2010. Daly, who was on the World Cup team at the time, had wanted an official jacket, but assistant coach Greg Sand had something even better for him: "You're gonna have to settle for an Olympic jacket, buddy, because you made the Olympic team," Sand said.
"I screamed," Daly says. "You think about something for so long and you wonder how you're gonna [react], but I was just kind of speechless. It was so overwhelming."
He called his parents, James and Bennarda, who screamed, cried and immediately went about displaying an Olympic flag outside their home.
These new heights didn't detach Daly from his Smithtown roots. There was the best friend, Doug Butera, who was fighting in Iraq but told Daly that "I don't care when you know [if you qualified], you let me know, and I'll be there." There were the four other friends who, along with Butera, showed up draped in American flags with"J. Daly" spelled out on their chests in the cold Whistler, B.C. night. There were the other 30-or-so companions from Smithtown schools and the Plattsburgh track team who, along with the shirtless five, rented a house for the duration of the Games.
And then there was Daly, amazed at "the sheer noise of when you go to the starting line" and noting that "nothing gets your nerves going anymore." He returned the favor weeks later, visiting and signing autographs at area schools, including his own Smithtown Elementary.
"I love sitting down and talking to these kids," he said. "I kind of thought I would have to go in and tell them what skeleton was, [but] they knew exactly who I was and what my start times were."
There was the call from Coach Carolan, too, in which Daly thanked him for changing his life. "You're welcome, John," Carolan said.