By Nicci Daly

 

In the tunnel before Ireland v USA at the Hockey World Cup I start feeling emotional. This never happens. Must be the unfamiliar surroundings. The crowd is electrifying, there are flames up ahead, music thumping and a giant picture of the trophy. The moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally happening and I’m welling up.

Christ, Nicci, get yourself together…

2018 Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup Pool B, Lee Valley Stadium, London, England 29/7/2018 England vs Ireland Ireland's Nicci Daly Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Joe Toth

2018 Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup Pool B, Lee Valley Stadium, London, England 29/7/2018 England vs Ireland Ireland’s Nicci Daly Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Joe Toth

I won’t start at the very beginning. That’s my other life, my career in motor racing, childhood weekends spent at Mondello Park watching Dad perform as “The Daly Express”.

No, we really should begin at the hockey, at what has just passed.

None of us will ever forget the small moments. Every morning we gathered for a mobility session in central London, as people pass by on their way to work, in this glorious summer of 2018, there we were playing tunes that stall their monotonous journey. Curiosity caught most of them, just to see what was happening, who are these happy girls in green?

As the tournament progressed the same people, on the way to their desks every morning, stopped for our street show. Those who love their hockey could reach out and touch the Ireland team, they could congratulate us after each and every victory.

We targeted a result against the USA but we took so much confidence from winning 3-1. We came into the game with absolutely no fear, no pressure (that’s why I couldn’t understand my state in the tunnel). It seems like forever ago now but I remember every second.

We arrived at Lee Valley off the back of warm-up victories over Japan and Germany, countries ranked ahead of us, so belief wasn’t a problem. What we didn’t realise was just how ready we were to play beyond our potential.

Besides the mobility sessions we happily existed in our bubble. We couldn’t possibly imagine Mariah Carey retweeting to her 20 million followers our version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on a homecoming stage in Dublin city.

Irish Hockey Team Homecoming, Dublin 6/8/2018 The Ireland team celebrate on stage Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Irish Hockey Team Homecoming, Dublin 6/8/2018 The Ireland team celebrate on stage Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

This story will always be retold. Before our first game some of the younger players said it felt like Christmas Eve. We came down for breakfast knowing the match was the opening of presents. So for mobility every day we’d blare Mariah for the commuters.

After the quarter-final, after that penalty shootout against India, it really did feel like Christmas.

We treated the semi-final against Spain like it was our final because victory guaranteed a medal. That made sense to us and worked as the necessary motivation. We emptied the tank for a silver medal which had previously been beyond our wildest dreams.

It meant facing the Dutch a day later was an enormous ask. They proved themselves the best team in the world and while 6-0 was emphatic, our performance is something we can stand over. The heat was a factor, we were jaded, understandably, but at times we matched the full time professionals.

It didn’t take long to forget the result. We had our forever moments stored up.

2018 Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup Semi-Final, Lee Valley Stadium, London, England 4/8/2018 Spain vs Ireland Ireland celebrate winning the shoot out Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Sandra Mailer

2018 Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup Semi-Final, Lee Valley Stadium, London, England 4/8/2018 Spain vs Ireland Ireland celebrate winning the shoot out Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Sandra Mailer

Next time will be different. Hopefully The Netherlands and other major nations will respect us enough to seek friendly internationals. That’s the plan – the top teams will want to know us inside out and we in turn will benefit from the exposure.

This is what we want and need going forward.

There’s an obvious problem – Irish hockey has no home. The extra funding from the government is a massive boost but, and I’m just being realistic, €500,000 is a drop in the ocean compared to other leading nations who currently operate on budgets that enter the millions.

Hearing about the extra funding certainly excited us as athletes but Ireland is probably the only top ten ranked nation in the world not running a full time programme. I hope the important conversations can happen immediately between Sport Ireland and Hockey Ireland to figure out how we close the gap in essential funding between our new rivals, the other leading hockey countries, and that can only mean establishing a full time programme for the squad. That’s how we build upon this success. That is the only way of being certain we do not go backwards. The players have set a new standard. Are the people responsible for safe guarding our sport going to respond in kind?

That would be our hope leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.

So, how about a national stadium? UCD used to be our venue for home internationals but the pitch is no longer FIH approved. It is not fit for purpose. There are approved pitches in Monkstown, Three Rock and St Gerard’s out in Bray but these are not stadiums, they are not equipped for the highest standard of international hockey. St Gerard’s and Monkstown are secondary schools.

We need to invite the best teams over and give them an Irish welcome in a cauldron atmosphere. Imagine the impact that would have on young female athletes living on this island?

Imagine a venue where all the people who became our supporters on television during the World Cup can come out to see us play.

First and foremost, it would be nice to have a state of the art facility where we can gather for training, alongside a pitch that becomes synonymous with Ireland victories. Qualification for Tokyo may come down to this alone.

The base expectation for an elite international sports team is a stadium, right?

I believe there is an area set aside in the Abbotstown national sports campus for hockey. Maybe that’s an option. The extra funding is great news but we earned it. Some clarity would be nice.

We remain amateurs operating against professionals. That’s just our reality. But we need to stretch that as much as possible to reach the Olympics and beyond.

We have to aim that high from now on. The secret is out about Ireland. It will only become more difficult.

The next step is for the Irish senior squad to train together as much as possible. We also need to earn a living and pursue careers, which I continue to do, so that puts up multiple barriers in terms of preparation. Others are studying while our best players are playing professionally abroad. It’s hard to know exactly how we solve this but steps must be taken soon.

Contact time outside international windows is vital to work on basic skills and get to know each other inside out because, come game week, the focus switches to short corners and team structures.

We are not starting from scratch, not at all, because in Graham Shaw we have a world class coach. Gary Longwell, our sports psychologist, also played a key role at the world cup; he was the unsung hero. By the end of the tournament players could talk to Gary about anything. Not just performance, any little problems in your life away from hockey.

Next for Ireland is qualification for the Olympics. Next for me is something very different. I’m racing at the 50-year celebrations of Mondello Park this weekend for “Formula Female” to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society.

The Formula Female brand is something concocted by myself and Emma Dempsey. Our dad’s used to be arch rivals while we looked on from the Mondello paddock. It’s always been a dream for us to get into a car, to race against an all male grid. Really, I am doing it in memory of my Dad. We are racing in a 1.8 litre Rover 25 car. We’ve even had a song written for us by Ryan J called “Drive It To The Ground” to raise awareness.

Motor racing is a whole other aspect of my life. Dad winning the Sexton Trophy in 1984 and again in 1986 guaranteed this along with Derek, my uncle, racing as a professional for 17 years, which included 64 Formula One Grand Prix between 1978-82.

The brothers had contrasting careers, domestically and globally, with Derek nicknamed the “Flying Irishman” due to his spectacular crashes, particularly at Monaco in 1980.

I missed my uncle’s career but grew up every weekend in the summer watching Dad until he passed away in 2002.

He was initially diagnosed in 2000 with throat cancer. Even stage four lung cancer couldn’t break his resolve, he fought like he used to race. They tried everything. Derek had a connection with Lance Armstrong’s doctor, who helped him recover, in Indianapolis so after exhausting chemotherapy and radiation treatments in Dublin – and refusing to give up – it was over to America where they tried several therapies, unsuccessfully. Then it was down to Mexico, unsuccessful again, but he kept going to the bitter end, which eventually arrived at St Luke’s Hospital in Rathgar on November 15th 2002. He was 48.

Dad’s passing denied me and my  brother the chance to follow in his footsteps but now, in so many ways, I am doing just that. When we were younger he was naturally focused on his own career – he ran everything; raced the car, drove the truck to events, he was the mechanic, the engineer – so finding time to run two children in Go Karts was not possible but as his career would have wound down he might have put us behind the wheel. Mam had four kids to raise so ferrying us to tracks and the expense that follows this sport made it unfeasible.

Go Karts is the essential beginning for professional drivers. Dad raced Ayrton Senna in his early days at the Go Kart world championships in Portugal. Senna remains a hero in the Daly household to this day. Such an unusual personality, his self belief was incredible, he understood the power of the mind and used it better than any other athlete I know – just that ability to enter The Zone more frequently than anyone else on the grid, with these sensational lap times commanded almost at will. Senna used to say he was somewhere else when the most magnificent and fastest drive was happening.

It’s a family passion, a family business. I always followed Formula 1 on the couch beside Dad and in recent years my cousin Conor Daly’s career has made it up to Indy Car. But finding my own passion and becoming the best I could be means I am following in Vivion Daly’s footsteps.

Initially I presumed that would be representing the Dublin Ladies in Gaelic Football after being called into the senior panel a year before their 2010 All-Ireland success. Around the same time I made the Ireland Hockey squad.

It’s extremely difficult to balance one high level amateur sport with life so two was proving ridiculous. I went with Ireland over Dublin. Unbelievably tough call but as the team came close to a breakthrough I knew I’d made the right choice.

Massive disappointment came before this summer’s joy. Penalty shootouts can also be lost! 2015 was the lowest point of my career in any sport. We had a great tournament out in Valencia, beating teams ranked ahead of us, but China’s poor performances put them against Ireland, after we topped our pool, in the quarter-finals. Victory meant we qualified for the Rio Olympics. We played exceptionally well and should have won in normal time. It was devastating but we kept going.

Another choice had to be taken around this time. I had my degree in mechanical engineering and completed a masters in motor sport engineering at Cranfield University in England (just after we missed out on the London 2012) but I needed to gain actual experience. The opportunity came just after we missed out on Rio.

Off I went to Juncos Racing headquartered in Indianapolis as a data engineer for six months of the season. Hockey pays no bills so I needed to build a foundation for life after the game. Thankfully Ricardo Juncos, who Conor previously raced for, and his staff accepted me as one of the team. I’ve been back and forth a few times.

Disclaimer: I never dreamed of having a World Cup silver medal around my neck but for a very long time I wanted to be a Formula 1 driver. That dream has only diverted slightly. I want to work in the Pit Lane at the Indy 500.

But, now, I also want to stand on the podium at Tokyo 2020. We all do.

So, it is going to be a step by step process to realise old and new goals. We must qualify for the Olympics in the next year. The Indy 500 comes around every year so there is no deadline. I will attempt to maintain hockey and my chosen profession. It is very difficult to strike the right balance but I refuse to sell myself short in either field.

I’ve had offers from clubs abroad, a lot of the Irish girls have this opportunity now, to play professionally.

When I know the details everyone else will too. Ireland have so much more to achieve. I want to be involved.

Barriers are nothing new. As a woman in my chosen, heavily male dominated, professional sport I was appalled to see Carmen Jordá – a leading Spanish racing driver and member of the FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission – saying women should focus on Formula E due to the “physical issue” in F1 and F2

I do not think this statement is true. Just look at Danica Patrick’s career in Indy Car, and how competitive she was after seven years off the scene. Carmen not only misrepresented women in motor sport with her comments but women in sport. That was so disappointing.

When I started working in motor sport there wasn’t as many females but to let that be a barrier is ridiculous. Physicality should never be an excuse either. If you want something you work hard for it until you get it or end up progressing in another direction from what you learn along the way. There is no reason why women cannot be F1 drivers. Staff at Juncos don’t treat me like a woman, they treat me like a data engineer. The proof came when they offered me a full time position almost straight away.

At least projects like “Dare To Be Different” encourage women to get involved in motor sport. I am constantly seeing increased female presence on racing teams.

There is danger, there is risk, but no sport provides the same thrill.

Derek Daly has cheated death many, many times. He also helped me on the performance side of my hockey game via his motor racing experiences.

I lacked confidence in my early days as both a person and player. From his time as a pit lane reporter for ESPN, following Formula 1 around the world, he got to know drivers at the front and back of the grid which provided an understanding of what makes a world champion, but also how those down the back of the grid must become the ultimate survivors to maintain their drive, their sponsors and most of all performance levels to remain in F1.

He learned a lot about that as a journalist, looking on, as these weren’t skills he possessed during his own career at the top level. Derek changed my mentality when it comes to taking the best out of my performance. It’s about unlocking your A game, arriving at peak performance through visualisation.

He’s my uncle so it is easy to talk to him, and he knows me as well as I know him. We have a close bond. There is honesty that allows us turn my weaknesses into strengths.

I used to self sabotage. Knowing the talent was within but lacking confidence to allow it flow out with the self belief that fuels 90 percent of elite performance.

2018 Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup Pool B, Lee Valley Stadium, London, England 29/7/2018 England vs Ireland Ireland's Nicci Daly and Anna Toman of England Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Joe Toth

2018 Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup Pool B, Lee Valley Stadium, London, England 29/7/2018 England vs Ireland Ireland’s Nicci Daly and Anna Toman of England Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Joe Toth

So, I’m in the tunnel. Ireland v USA, the start of the World Cup, London 2018. Losing it. The line-up saved me as an old routine clicked in. Instinctively I always look to the sky, up to dad, something I’ve done 160-odd times before. This settles me back into the moment.

Most of the girls are laughing. Second lowest ranked team in the tournament. No expectations. Yet here we are, already achieved what we set out to (qualification). Laughing makes us play better and performing the way we do against USA gifted us a freedom to go somewhere very special, all because we had no pressure weighing us down. That comes next time but we crave it now as we want to retain our status as a top eight nation. All aboard the bandwagon hockey. There is plenty of room.

Nicci,

August 2018.

 

The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.

This all began with a contribution from Jamie Heaslip, one of the greatest servants to Irish rugby, with The End is Really The Beginning Part 1 and Part 2.

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