It’s like a beach volleyball dynasty popping up at the North Pole, like a rugby phenomenon building in Vatican City. Relatively balmy and flat Long Island isn’t exactly known for its winter sports legacy but John Daly has bucked the trend. He’s a Smithtown High grad, a track athlete there and at college, but this month at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, he’ll suit up for the red, white and blue in search of a medal, ideally of the gold variety, in the men’s skeleton. So what’s skeleton, you ask?
“It’s about as close as you can get to flying,” Daly said. “You really feel like the sled isn’t even underneath you sometimes.”
For the event, athletes lie on their stomachs headfirst and travel on luge-like sleds at speeds topping 80 miles per hour. They steer with their shoulders and knees, and the same track is used for the bobsled and luge. At age 14, it was luge, not skeleton, that Daly had taken up during a USA Luge Slider Search at Old Westbury. He went north to Lake Placid but, citing a preference for it, switched over to skeleton at 16. Now 24, he is considered one of the top American candidates to medal in the event, having swept the America’s Cup races in Lake Placid, breaking the track record in doing so. He then took gold in the Lake Placid Intercontinental Cup.
His track background has helped him flourish. He competed in the pentathlon at Smithtown and was an All-American decathlete at SUNY Plattsburgh. The versatility prepared him for all aspects of the skeleton, particularly at the start.
“The push in the beginning gives me a chance to set myself apart from other athletes,” said Daly, whose start ranks among the top three in the world. “I’ve always liked running and I think I do well at that. If I’m top three at the start, I figure at least I’m going to start the race off well.”
Daly and at least one other American slider will look to duplicate the feat accomplished by Jimmy Shea, who took gold in Salt Lake City in 2002, the first year skeleton was contested in the Olympics since 1948. The U.S. skeleton team struck out in the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy. He views bearing his country’s colors as no small achievement in itself.
“I honestly feel that the U.S. is the greatest place to live in the world, and New York and Long Island are the greatest places in the world to be,” Daly said. “I’ve had friends from other countries visit me and see that I’m five minutes away from the beach, right next to New York City and with the freedom to do what you want. To represent the U.S. is a lifelong dream, not only for me, but my family.”
There are no speed limits on the track, and more tenths in miles per hour translates to fewer tenths on the stopwatch. Daly got over the fear of “flying” long ago, including at Vancouver, where he was the first slider ever to skeleton from the previously forbidden highest start line. By mid-January, he’d taken 20 runs on the Olympic track. The precious few in February are the ones that millions worldwide will be watching.
“Nothing can really prepare you for it,” Daly said. “I really haven’t set any goals this season. I had a big goal list last year, and usually I either overshoot them or come up short. If I don’t set any goals, the sky’s the limit.”