For Daly, Olympic skeleton shot surprised himself

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When the first World Cup skeleton race of the season opens Thursday, many of the most accomplished sliders in the sport will be on the starting line. Olympic medalists. World champions. World Cup champions. John Daly, a 24-year-old American, wasn't sure if he was ready to join them. He tells the story with pride now: Before the U.S. skeleton national team trials, Daly was so certain he wouldn't make the World Cup team that he bought a ticket back to the training base in Lake Placid, instead of making plans to fly to Whistler, British Columbia for two weeks of practice on the track for the 2010 Vancouver Games. Surprise! The kid made the team, the ticket needed to be changed, and Daly's Olympic quest is picking up steam. "It definitely doesn't seem normal, but my parents said my voice is changing a little bit because of all the excitement," Daly said. "I'm definitely not taking anything for granted at this level. There's guys below me that definitely want my spot, so it's going to be tough." To be on the Olympic-bound roster when it's chosen in January, Daly needs to show he belongs at the World Cup level. He'll be one of three U.S. men in the field Thursday, with Eric Bernotas and Zach Lund joining him. The American women's roster for the first World Cup will former world champion Noelle Pikus-Pace, two-time World Cup champ Katie Uhlaender and Rebecca Sorensen. World Cup bobsledding opens in Park City Friday and Saturday. This first race won't make or break anyone, but it'll surely set the tone for a season that'll be filled with intense pressure. "One, he's a good kid. Two, he has a fast start, so he can push some of these older guys as well," U.S. assistant skeleton coach Greg Sand said of Daly. "He's a fresh face. He's light. He doesn't take himself or things too seriously. That's not to say he's goofing off, because he's a really good sportsman and competitor. But he's what we needed." For whatever reason, skeleton seems to place itself among the Olympic front-runners in drama, and this year is already no exception. Start with the Americans, who have some big-time sliders dealing with big-time injuries. Uhlaender had a shattered kneecap that needed four surgeries, but she somehow fought through grueling rehab and is ready for the World Cup opener. Lund and Bernotas both fought leg injuries in team trials and asked for waivers out of that competition; only Bernotas got the pass, meaning his roommate had to press on with a balky hamstring. The rest of the world hasn't exactly had smooth sliding, either. Canada's Michelle Kelly - who figures to be a medal hopeful on the Vancouver track - was booted off her national team for doctoring the runners of her sled and breaking international rules. It sparked a scandal, which ended with a reversal some within the sport called stunning: Her appeal was upheld late Tuesday night and she was restored to Canada's roster. Plus, there's been nonstop hubbub about Canada's restrictions on time other nations would get to train on the Olympic track. Daly's trying not to get wrapped up in any of it. "Me, I'm just going to keep on truckin'," Daly said. His story, like so many that find their way to the Olympics, is unusual. Daly started with luge, a marriage that quickly ended. ("I didn't like it. They didn't like me, to be honest with you," he said.) The Long Island native narrowed his college choices to four: Iona for Division I running, Bucknell for academics, Cortland State (N.Y.) for all-around excellence at the NCAA Division III level, and Plattsburgh State on the tippy-top of New York, about an hour's drive from Montreal. It's also about an hour's drive from Lake Placid. Knowing he could whisk down to Placid for skeleton training almost whenever he wanted, Daly chose Plattsburgh and began laying the groundwork for this Olympic bid. Two years removed from graduating, Daly - who takes part of what he's learned from years of karate and applies it to skeleton - hopes his first big breakthrough leads to another. "It's pretty simple," Daly said. "Now I've just got to do it, right?"

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