It took going on several dates for John Daly to realize he wasn’t living his best life.
The two-time Olympic skeleton racer was working as a medical device sales representative in Washington, D.C., and living in “the real world” for the first time. He was “going on a decent amount of dates” at the time, and women would ask him what he liked to do outside of work and what he was passionate about. That’s when it hit him.
“I honestly did not have an answer, and that was it,” Daly, 31, said. “I’m not really passionate about anything and I started to think there’s nothing in my life I’m passionate about as much as competing and as much as being with my teammates in skeleton.”
That was the turning point that led to his comeback.
|John Daly makes a run during a men's skeleton training session at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at the Sanki Sliding Center on Feb. 11, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.
After retiring from the sport more than two years ago, Daly has decided to return with his sights set on a medal at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
He is returning to a sport that had given him the most memorable and happiest times of his life – 13 years of hard work, friendships and seeing the world, several medals and two Olympic appearances.
But it had also provided perhaps the lowest moment of Daly’s life. At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, he was sitting in fourth place entering the fourth and final run of the men’s skeleton competition with a medal very much in reach. He was four hundredths of a second behind longtime teammate Matt Antoine.
As Daly began his run, his sled popped out of the starting groove, a tragic error he had no control over.
“It wasn’t anything I did wrong, it was just a freak accident; there was no one to blame but myself,” Daly said. “But it was nothing I could’ve changed. It would’ve been no different from rolling your ankle walking to the line or getting sick the day before.”
In the blink of an eye, he saw the most important opportunity of his life slip away after working nearly half his life toward it. He fell from fourth to 15th, with his total time almost two seconds off the podium. Antoine won bronze.
“I don’t know if a day goes by where that does not cross my mind at some point,” Daly said recently of his final run in Sochi. “Every time I worked out, it would come into my head. It’s something you don’t forget. It was surreal as it was happening.
“I thought I was in a bad dream as it was happening.”
Daly put on a brave face for the media, saying that run would fuel him for another four years and that he would not let his career end that way.
But as soon as he reached the locker room and was out of sight of the cameras, he broke down in tears for the first time in as long as he could remember.
“I was devastated and I was irate,” he recalled. “When I sat down against the wall, it was like the world came crashing down. It all hit me: The Olympics are over, your career might be over, and I just broke down. …
“People always want to talk about hardships and stuff like that, but my life’s been pretty good; it’s been easy. … There’s hardships, but no one ever gets to where they want to be in life and looks back and says that was easy. But I always had redemption, I could always come back. This was it. There was no coming back, it was over. I broke down and that was the part no one saw.”
By the time the Games were over and he left Russia, Daly had changed his mind. He was done. He returned to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, where he had been living for eight years, and packed up all his belongings in one day.
“I turned my back on the sport, honestly,” Daly said.
After hearing about medical equipment manufacturing company Smith & Nephew from Olympic bobsledder Chuck Berkeley, who had worked there, Daly applied and was quickly hired to work in their ENT division in D.C.
“I really liked it, liked the team I was on, and I was an associate at first, learned everything from then and after about a year and a half they gave me a full-line rep job,” Daly said. “The company is absolutely amazing. I love working there. And that was a huge part of continuing to move forward in the real world.”
Daly enjoyed living in the real world – until he began going on all those dates. He soon realized he was missing the passion in his life that skeleton provided, and that nothing in the real world compared to sleigh riding at 80 mph.
“You’re not going to get that in life as far as the amount of fun,” he said, comparing his athlete life to his adult life. “You get to work hard, but the hard work’s not the same. That mentality to work hard transitioned to adult life, but I feel like the reward isn’t as great. The self-satisfaction just isn’t as great.”
Daly returned to Lake Placid in March 2016 to slide as a forerunner at USA Skeleton National Championships. At the time, it was just for fun and he still had no intention of competing again – until he realized he still knew what he was doing. It was his first time on a sled in over two years, and he slid surprisingly well.
When national team trials rolled around this fall, his agent asked if he was going to try out. He insisted it would be too difficult, but after much hemming and hawing, he emailed the USA Bobsled & Skeleton staff, who made it much simpler than Daly expected for him to return to Lake Placid and try it out.
The week after team trials, he drove nine hours from D.C. to upstate New York and returned to the track in secret.
“I came up and slid, slid very well again and it hit me: I can do this. Everything’s still there. What am I waiting on at this point? What am I doing – testing out the waters? Let’s go. If you can do it, why don’t you?”
He realized that – despite taking more than two years off from training and sliding – he still had it. The skill, the speed and the power were all still there.
Daly said his run times are a tenth or two off what they were in his prime, and his start times are a couple hundredths off.
“I wondered if I could still drive it the same and handle it the same way as far as getting that feeling back,” he said. “And I remember coming out of curve one, the sled started to drift and I corrected it without even thinking and I was immediately calm at the exit of curve one with 19 more curves to go.
“Flight or fight mode came into play and I say, all right, you know exactly what to do and when to do it, so enjoy the rest.”
And now he’s back.
But he’s not doing it the easy way. Daly is keeping his full-time job in D.C., and escaping to Lake Placid every other weekend to slide.
He works at the hospital from 7 a.m.-4 p.m. most weekdays, then spends three hours in the gym (half on sprinting, half lifting). Friday nights, he leaves work and drives nine hours to Lake Placid, gets in at 3 a.m., slides at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, then leaves at noon to drive nine hours back to D.C. for work the next morning.
“I’m definitely out of my mind, that’s for sure,” Daly said of his new schedule. “But we already knew that.”
While he works his way back up toward the world cup circuit and February’s world championships, he has to compete on the lower circuits and race in five races across three tracks, per international federation rules. So he’ll spend most of January competing, with two North American Cup races in Park City, Utah, then a European Cup in St. Moritz, Switzerland, followed by two more North American Cup races in Lake Placid.
“I’ll have to win a lot to get moved up. So the plan is to win.”
He’s following that same plan on his Road to PyeongChang.
“The goal is to medal,” Daly said of his comeback. “It’s just the fact that I’ll have it. I’ll have it for me. It could sit in the sock drawer, for all I care. It’s more than just the medal. It’s a symbol to represent everything that I put in for it. And it’s a tangible item that I could hold. That’s really it.
“Being so close to taste it, then get it pulled away, there’s only one last goal, and that’s to medal. I want to do it the fun way again, I want to do it with my teammates, I want to show the world and have everyone share it with me. It’s so fun, I want to be able to do that again. Medal and go on ‘The Bachelor,’ that’s the plan. Of course, the end goal is Bachelor.”