John Daly had made peace with his life as a former Olympian, or so he believed. His final run on a skeleton sled had ended in heartbreak at the 2014 Sochi Games — such a bitter finish that he had chosen a clean split from the sport he loved. He relocated to Washington and found he enjoyed life without skeleton. He excelled at his job, traveled on weekends and could order one more vodka soda without worrying how he would feel at morning workouts. He had moved on, started over.
But then in the fall of 2016, after another Thursday of selling medical devices, Daly chatted with a woman he had met online over tapas at a D.C. restaurant. They swapped get-to-know-yous until she asked a question that startled Daly.
"So," she asked, "what are you passionate about?"
Daly paused, mulled it over and leaned back in his chair.
"Nothing," he finally blurted.
The answer led Daly back to skeleton, back to another Winter Olympics and to PyeongChang, South Korea, where next month Daly, at 32, will take another run at a medal he came so agonizingly close to winning in Sochi in 2014. For Daly, the upcoming Games represent an opportunity to rewrite an ending — despite the risk of an opening an old wound.
During the date, he made a joke to move past the question. But that entire weekend, a sudden and surprising realization washed over him: As much comfort as he derived from life after skeleton and as much as he thought his bitter end had extinguished his love for the sport, he had not found anything else that made him feel so alive. That Monday, he sent an email to Amanda Bird, a USA Bobsled official, and asked her, "Would this even be possible?"
Still, Daly made certain not to announce a comeback. He had a lot to consider, both practical and mental. He wanted to wait before making anything official because another question had started rattling around his head: What if it happened again?
On top of the track at Sanki Sliding Center, Daly had reached the pinnacle of his athletic career. Four years earlier, in Vancouver, he had finished 17th in his Olympic debut. Now, at his second Games, Daly had come to win. "In Sochi," USA Skeleton Coach Tuffy Latour said, "he was a beast." Earlier heats left him in third place. With one more of his best runs in his final trip down the track, Daly had a shot at an Olympic medal.
Daly sprinted off the line. As he transitioned to leap onto the sled, his knees veered slightly out of alignment, too close to the sled. On some runs, it may not have mattered. On that day, on that track, his sled popped out of the groove. He skidded diagonally, his shoulders bouncing off the walls. It was a disaster, a slider's worst nightmare, at the worst time.
He knew instantly he had lost his chance at a medal. For more than a minute, Daly felt like he was sliding in slow motion, or as if he was watching himself from afar. As he skidded to the finish, all his speed lost and all his hope drained, he held his hands to his visor.
"There's really nothing you can do," said Daly, who ended up falling from third place to 15th. "I wish there was an exit ramp. There's just no saving it. You're stuck on a one-way street down a mile of ice to the bottom. I just had a mile to think about what just happened."
Daly walked into the locker room, tore off his helmet and screamed. He sat down against a wall, alone, and anger turned to sadness. Matt Antoine, his friend and roommate in Sochi, took his final run. With the door opened by Daly's crash, Antoine won bronze.
Through the postrace commotion, Daly watched the medalists walk toward the podium. He trudged across the track and found his parents. His father, Jim, wiped tears off John's face and hugged him. Normally in such moments, Daly would expect his father to offer quiet support. Instead, Jim leaned close and told his son, "What happens here today will make you the man you are tomorrow."
Those words, Daly said later, were the best thing he could have heard.
"They come from your heart," Jim Daly said. "Because your heart is breaking. It's your son. His heart is breaking."
Daly told an NBC interviewer he would have to wait four years to redeem himself. Inside, he believed he was done. It wasn't that he had lost. It was that the accident had robbed him of a chance to find out whether he was good enough to win an Olympic medal.
"He was like, 'That was it; I'm done with the sport,' " Latour said. "I felt bad for him because I knew he had so much more in him."
Daly had planned to throw himself a retirement party, but how could he celebrate? He had been sliding since he was 12, when he threw a snowball at his bobsled coach's face, so the coach made him try skeleton instead. Right away, he loved it — the sprint at the top, the rush of accelerating headfirst. Now, even though he was 28, it felt as if his childhood was ending.
"There's definitely a lost feeling about what to do now," Daly said. "That's also why it was so upsetting about how it ended. Instead of getting a couple weeks and celebrating, it was over right then and there. There's nothing to celebrate. It ended. It didn't end the way you want. It was tough to switch gears."
Back home on Long Island, most of his friends, freed from the constraints of Olympic training and travel, had married and had kids. He wanted a fresh start, where nobody knew him as an athlete. He always liked Washington — milder than New York in both climate and temperament, he liked to say. Daly got a place in Arlington and landed a job selling pediatric medical equipment for Smith & Nephew.
One night, his father asked Daly his feeling about racing again.
"I could go back," Daly told him. "And the exact same thing could happen again."
Daly happily transitioned into life without skeleton. He checked out the monuments, made new friends, settled into routine. He traveled to bachelor parties and weddings, made a fishing trip to Wisconsin with old teammates.
During the day, he would give technical advice to doctors using his product — a device that helps remove tonsils from kids with sleeping disorders. On the way home, he would stop at a local school field to work out and avoid traffic.
In the spring of 2016, Antoine visited Daly in Arlington. "Man, it's not the same without you," Antoine told him. Though Daly insisted otherwise — those workouts are just for beach muscles, he would say — Antoine sensed Daly might be edging toward skeleton again.
"I think maybe he had a different perspective a little bit on life outside the sport," Antoine said. "He just realized skeleton was something that he loved. It kind of made him feel alive. 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."
When his date asked her question that fall, it rattled him into considering a comeback. Still, he hesitated. Sliding again would mean putting his new life — a life he liked — on hold. Did he have the willpower to do it? Would work allow it? Would the federation? Could he find equipment?
Smith & Nephew valued him enough to let him work as he trained, if he wanted. Daly found new gear — what he hadn't donated to rookies, he had sold off. He quietly arranged a trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., to see whether he still had the ability to slide at a world-class level.
"He was flying downhill," Latour said. "That sparked the interest. He felt, 'I love this sport.' "
The workouts came easy. The mental hurdles were harder to clear. Life without the stakes of failure or success, without a time on a clock defining him, had been comfortable.
"It was tough to transition — not out of it but back into it," Daly said. "It was very tough to turn that competitive edge back on, to bring back all those emotions and put yourself out there for potentially a victory or defeat all over again. That was the hardest part."
Daly believes he has regained his form. He feels stronger now — "old-man strength," he joked — despite training while still holding down his full-time job, a nearly unheard-of balance. He would visit doctors during the day, train at night and fly to Lake Placid or Europe on weekends for sliding or World Cup events. His last day at work was Tuesday, about a week before he flies to South Korea.
"He always bites off more than he can chew," Jim Daly said. "And then he chews it."
On Tuesday night, Daly mingled at a fundraiser at a Wharf hotel, sipping a Corona and posing for pictures in a white Team USA sweater. Teammates love having him back. His charisma, Latour said, makes everyone else better, more confident.
"To me, the kid's a champion," Latour said. "He popped a groove. Things happen in our sport."
Daly does not dwell on his last run at Sochi, but he does not lie about it, either. It's in the back of his mind. It will be on his mind at the top of the track in PyeongChang.
"If it happens again, I still have not come up with an answer," Daly said. "That would be a tough one to live with. That part, if it happens again like that, that might break me."
What is certain about Daly's comeback is it has shown him what he really thinks about skeleton. He might let the sport break his heart again, and that acceptance, of course, is only a condition of love.