John Daly credits a first date with getting him to return to a sport where you hurl yourself head first down an icy chute on a tiny sled reaching speeds above 80 miles an hour.
Mr. Daly had made a clean split from the sport after a devastating 2014 Winter Olympics where he skidded from medal contention to 15th place on his final run of the men’s skeleton competition. “I decided to hang up my spandex and re-enter the real world,” he says. He relocated from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he’d lived for eight years, to Arlington, Va., where he got a job selling pediatric medical equipment.
Life as a former Olympian meant he finally had time for happy hours, friends and dating. In the fall of 2016, over tapas and small talk, a woman he met online asked what he was passionate about. “I thought, ‘That’s a deep question for a first date,’ ” he says. “But it got me thinking that nothing makes me feel more alive than racing.”
Mr. Daly had been “sliding,” as the sport is known, since he was 12. He initially competed in luge. When he threw a snowball at his bobsled coach, the coach made him try skeleton. He was hooked. Now 32, he’s come out of retirement for his third Olympics, which take place this month in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He began training again in October 2016, while still holding down his full-time job.
Mr. Daly says juggling an intense schedule hasn’t been as tough as turning his competitive drive back on and putting himself out there again for potential victory or defeat. To remind himself of why he’s coming back, he wears a necklace that reads, “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it.” Mr. Daly is ranked 15th in the world as he heads to the Games.
Mr. Daly says skeleton requires the speed of a sprinter and strength of a powerlifter. The start requires athletes to sprint for about 30 yards on the ice, pushing their sleds with one hand before they dive onto the sleds head first, trying to mold their bodies into the sleds and relax as they endure up to 5Gs of force going around curves. Athletes steer by making small movements with their shoulders and knees pressing into the sled.
Leading up to the Olympics, Mr. Daly had to fit in eight workouts Monday through Friday while juggling a 7 a.m.-to-3 p.m. work schedule. “If I don’t wake up at 5 a.m. for one of my workouts, that means I have to double up in the evening,” he says. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he would train three hours. “Instead of driving an hour after work to change, I keep a bag in my car and head to the closest track and Gold’s Gym,” he says.
Tuesdays and Thursdays he did light tempo jogging workouts and hit a pool to do mobility drills with water resistance. “You’re in a bent-over position running with the sled, so it’s important to stay flexible,” he says. Once fall arrived, Mr. Daly had to get on the ice to train. He’d usually drive nine hours to Lake Placid on Fridays so he could train over the weekend, or he would fly to Europe for World Cup competitions.
“I eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch six days a week,” Mr. Daly says. Breakfast is two eggs and Greek yogurt. On his splurge day he might have Lucky Charms. “I really enjoy unhealthy cereals,” he says. Lunch is breaded chicken, a vegetable like kale, broccoli or Brussels sprouts, and an apple or berries. He snacks on almonds. He does a lot of meal prep so he can heat up dinner and alternates between meat- and carb-focused nights. When on the road he always has a water bottle and trail mix. Sour Patch Kids are his guilty pleasure. Peanut butter and jelly with toasted marshmallows is his go-to late night snack.
Mr. Daly says footwear is everything in his sport. “Our shoes look like track and field spikes, but with 250 tiny spikes on the bottom so we don’t slip,” he says. Athletes wear aerodynamic helmets. Sleds are about 3 to 4 feet long and 18 inches wide. Men’s sleds cannot exceed 95 pounds. Mr. Daly competes in a speed suit. Sponsors cover his equipment costs.
“I listen to a mix of everything, but my go-to is house music,” he says. The English EDM group Above & Beyond and DJs like Tiësto and Avicii are staples of his workout mixes. When he wants to get pumped up he listens to heavy metal from Five Finger Death Punch or Rob Zombie.
What Exactly Is Skeleton?
If you ever went sledding as a child, you might have found sliding down a snowy hill head first more thrilling than sliding feet first.
The sport of skeleton is an extreme version of the childhood activity. Athletes negotiate a series of twists and turns while sliding head first, face inches from the ice, on a one-person sled that offers little protection. The sled itself is called a skeleton because of its bony shape.
The sport evolved from sledding and most believe it was developed in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz. The sport made its Olympic debut in 1928. Any Joe Schmo can try out for the skeleton team, says Tuffield Latour, the Lake Placid, N.Y.-based U.S. skeleton national team head coach.
And most athletes, he says, have what it takes to be a bobsledder or skeleton racer.
“To be great in the sport, body awareness is key,” he says. “This will allow you to understand what’s happening in each curve and be able to feel the curve. Then it comes down to speed, power and natural ability.”
Mr. Latour says the course in South Korea is unique.
“Curve Two is somewhat of an old-school corner,” he says. “Even the best pilots have issues exiting this corner. Turn Nine is the one corner that most athletes will struggle with over the four heats of the race. The exit of this corner runs into a straightaway will surely cost someone a medal.”
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Write to Jen Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org